Addendum

[CW: bigotry]

Stumbled onto Dan Fincke’s lengthy defense of Charlie Hebdo in my feed reader, so I decided to see how it addressed my own point. It didn’t, really, just making the tired “it’s okay because they’re liberal” argument that holds water about as well as most sieves. Fincke specifically brings up South Park’s hilarious use of antisemitism used to skewer antisemites and Colbert’s anti-rightwing schtick, conveniently ignoring1 all the times both those shows have, despite liberal (or left libertarian in South Park’s case) intentions, crossed well into racist, misogynist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted territory, without making the bigots the butt of the joke. Read some trans people’s writing on the number of jokes at their expense on primetime TV someday. It rather takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those arguments.

But Fincke brought up one point in the process that’s worth tackling specifically.

And, to the point of stereotypical depictions, Ashley Miller has made the important point that the medium of political cartoon inherently plays in caricature. It plays on over-exaggerated imagery. It’s a stylistic element of the medium. Everyone usually looks awful or stereotyped in a political cartoon. That’s usually the point.

Yeah, no. It’s true, caricature is an art of exaggeration, whether it’s racist or not. The problem is when caricaturists rely on racist imagery, rather than their actual subjects, to make their caricatures. Take, for instance, most right-wing political cartoons featuring Barack Obama2. You’ll find a litany of bulbous noses and big lips, which (as this cartoon by Shmorky points out) are not features that Obama possesses. Rather than caricaturing a person, Barack Obama, who has a very caricaturable face, they fall back on caricature shorthand for black people that dates back to Al fucking Jolson.

The same is true for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that have made the rounds lately. So many Muslim men with turbans, thobes, bushy beards, and big hook noses; so many Muslim women in burqas. Why is that? Muslim women wear a wide variety of different garb, depending on their particular denomination, from simple scarves and hijabs to the more restrictive niqabs and burqas. Muslim men have more clothing diversity, and both genders have far greater diversity than the cartoons would suggest. If Islam isn’t a race, why is every Muslim drawn as an Arab caricature3? Even if it weren’t racist, it’s lazy.

But then, lazy caricature often trades in racism, because racism is the laziest form of caricature. No need to consider anything about the people, what they look like, how they behave, just reduce them to a set of signifiers determined by their skin color.

Fincke links positively to Understanding Charlie Hebdo, a website that helpfully seeks to explain the cartoons for a non-French-speaking audience. That site compares Charlie Hebdo to Mad Magazine, which seems apt. Mad Magazine is also a humor publication that skewers current events with a left-leaning bias, and Mad also trades heavily in cartoonish caricatures of their targets. Mad also has a long history of bigoted cartoons that aren’t covered by the blanket immunity of “they’re liberal!” or “no, no, the bigots are the punchline!” because the bigots, very clearly, are not the punchline. And lest you think that cherry-picking the most easily-found images from the ’70s demonstrates that it’s no longer a problem, here’s one that drew some understandable heat in 2013.

Being liberal, making fun of bigots, and using caricature are all well and good. They are not, however, things that prevent your work from serving bigotry of one sort or another. That requires more thought, more consideration, and more awareness of context. Folks like Fincke want us to consider these French cartoons in the larger context of the magazine’s politics and French culture, but to ignore the larger context of a long, worldwide history of racist and homophobic imagery, and the splash damage caused by using that imagery, the way it undermines any intended message of anti-racism. Wouldn’t this cartoon be more effective at lampooning racists if it didn’t feature a black caricature who could have been traced from a 1940s Spirit comic? Wouldn’t this cartoon have been more effective if it didn’t think replicating racist imagery were the same thing as lampooning it?

In science and skepticism, we often talk about the Galileo Gambit, where cranks will compare themselves to Galileo because his ideas were rejected too. I’m starting to think we need an Onion Gambit: “It is not enough to wear the mantle of satire; you must also be good at it.”


1. Fincke acknowledges some of South Park’s issues with transphobia later in the post, but doesn’t seem to see the actual distinction. From Fincke’s perspective, apparently, all targets are fair game for whatever caricature the satirists decide to use. The problem is only when the content of the satire is actually false. I think the problem is when the satire feeds into or relies on stereotypes that have, traditionally, been used to demean and oppress the underprivileged. It’s especially egregious when the target of the satire is not the stereotype itself (South Park’s transphobia, the Asian caricature that led to #CancelColbert), but even material which tries to make bigots the butt of the joke often falls flat. Fred Clark wrote a piece awhile back that often comes to mind when this topic comes up. Making fun of bigots by exaggerating actual bigotry is a difficult tightrope walk for even very talented comedians and satirists, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they occasionally stumble. But saying that those stumbles aren’t problematic because the satirist usually has good intentions ignores the difference between intent and outcome, and robs us of a conversation that often needs to be had. Why is the joke/caricature/etc. problematic? Where does it come from? Why was it thought to be funny? Dissecting those issues often gets us to the messy world of how we all absorb and sometimes repeat bigoted stereotypes without thinking. These missteps should be opportunities for us to talk about how bigotry works, how to be more aware of splash damage, more compassionate. Getting defensive and saying “nuh-uh because liberal” only perpetuates the problem.

2. The special case is Ted Rall. Rall is a leftist cartoonist who drew fire in 2013 for cartoons that depicted Barack Obama in a decidedly apelike fashion. Those defending Rall pointed out that he depicted everyone in a decidedly apelike fashion. He and his defenders thought this equal treatment meant that the cartoons weren’t actually racist. I think it’s a prime example of the problem with “equal opportunity offense.” Things that aren’t really problematic when done to privileged groups aren’t so benign when they feed into or draw from a context of bigotry and oppression. It’s one thing to draw George W. Bush like a chimp. Dude looks like a chimp. But drawing Obama to look like a chimp, when he doesn’t, and when there’s a huge history of cartoons and propaganda and pseudoscience about how apelike black people are, when “monkey” is a slur, it means you may have to rethink your stock caricature.

It also shows what a lazy, shitty artist Ted Rall is.

3. To be entirely fair to Charlie Hebdo, many of these caricatures are of Muhammad, who was Arabian. The fact that Muhammad is basically indistinguishable from any other male Muslim in their cartoons, however, is a problem.

Racebook

I know that Facebook is a wretched hive of unwanted commentary by people you barely remember from high school and college, but I’ve been pretty lucky not to see anything egregious, largely by staying away on days that I knew would just infuriate me.

So I was a bit nonplussed to find a friend of mine sharing this anti-protest diatribe today, in the wake of all the terrible shit that’s been going down in the last several weeks. I ended up responding briefly there, but I can feel the SIWOTI burning, so it’s time for an old-fashioned fisking. I don’t know (or much care) who the original author is.

Imagine yourself, 13 years old, Christmas day. Your dad was executed 5 days earlier, assassinated, shot in the head at point blank range without a fighting chance. For what? For doing his job. For dawning the uniform.

Donning. And yes, it’s rough working in a line of work where your life is always at risk. We could talk about the things police officers do (and the unnecessary things they’re required to do) that increase that risk, but let’s not pretend that policing is usually regarded as a very safe pursuit. The reason that we hold up police and firefighters and soldiers as heroes is because we recognize that they put their lives on the line to protect and serve the rest of us. The chance of being gunned down on the street is a chance they willingly take every day. It is a terrible, but not unexpected, part of being a police officer.

It shouldn’t, however, be an expected part of playing at the park or shopping at Walmart or cosplaying or getting in a car accident.

For wearing the badge. For keeping chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay every single day. For serving an ungrateful and violent public.

Unfortunately, this description of how the cops are supposed to act is at odds with how they often do. Firing on peaceful protests with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Disproportionately targeting communities of color does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Shooting first and lying about it later does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Defending unfit officers does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Engaging in unethical prosecutory conduct up to and including the subornation of perjury in order to prevent police officers from facing consequences for their own violent animosity does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.”

Physician, heal thyself, and all that.

Imagine yourself looking underneath the Christmas tree at a gift with a tag on it saying, “From Dad”, only knowing his funeral is next week.

Eric Garner had six, and three grandchildren. John Crawford had three children. Tamir Rice was 12 years old, the kind of kid who’d be opening those presents.

This December 25th, for 24 hours, at least one cable station will be playing “A Christmas Story,” a schmaltzy nostalgic movie about a young (white) boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas, no matter what any of the adults say is sensible. The movie is beloved by many, widely seen as wholesome and funny and charming.

Now imagine that your son was fatally shot for playing with just such a gun in a neighborhood park, by police who lied about it afterward, who handcuffed your 14-year-old daughter who watched it all happen and threatened you with arrest, and were not even charged with a crime.

The people killed by police had families too. Despite what many in the media would have you believe, despite what some of the police officers themselves would appear to believe, they are not universally violent inhuman demons. It’s not “ungrateful” to be upset that police are failing in their duty to protect and serve. It’s not “ungrateful” to hold police to their own stated standards.

Imagine your Dad being blatantly murdered at the hands of a crazed and radical individual, driven by media and political-instilled hate all because he wears a Police Officer’s uniform.

Imagine your dad, brother, son, daughter, sister, mother being blatantly harassed, injured, mangled, murdered at the hands of unstable, immature, angry, fearful individuals driven by media and political-instilled hate all because they have brown skin.

Now, imagine yourself, a newly wed, ready to get your life on track with the love of your life. 2 months of marriage under your belt and you and your husband are planning your first Christmas together as a married couple. While out Christmas shopping for him, you get a phone call saying your husband has been shot and is in the hospital fighting for his life, only to find out he’d died in his patrol car for no reason.

Now imagine yourself, shopping for a cookout with your boyfriend, when the police pick you up and take you to an interrogation room. They berate you for hours, threaten you with arrest, ask where your boyfriend got a gun, accuse him of wanting to murder his ex-girlfriend, and reduce you to tears and swearing on the lives of your family that he didn’t have a gun when he entered the store, only to be told ninety minutes into the interrogaton that your boyfriend was shot to death, only to learn later that he had been carrying a toy gun that he picked up in an aisle of the store, in a state where he would have been legally allowed to wave around an AR-15 to his heart’s content. And neither officer was indicted as a result, despite there being video evidence contradicting their statements.

People are killed by police for no reason too.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a reality we of the law enforcement community live with day by day. Every Police Officer’s goal at the end of the day isn’t to fuck you over for a speeding ticket or to pick on you because you’re black, red, purple, white, a dog, or anything.

Their goal at the end of the day is to come home safe to the loving, embracing arms of their families at home. That is it.

Surprisingly, this is also a goal of the people of color who are disproportionately stopped, harassed, and arrested by police.

But you make a mistake in that first paragraph. It’s true, not every officer’s goal is to fuck with people, but it’s not true to say that every officer’s goal is not fucking with people. Go watch that Eric Garner video, if you can stomach it. Watch him talk about how often they fuck with him. If only the officers were so zealous about tax evasion with people walking down Wall Street instead of just Bay Street. Read up on Stop and Frisk. Police Officers are human beings too, and just like any humans, are all too prone to human biases, human bigotries, and human abuses of power. Campaigning for reform, for systems that actually punish officers for abusing the badge, isn’t a self-serving ploy by criminals. It’s a way of protecting everyone from those few bad apples. As it stands, police culture protects the unfit officers, and the effect is to further endanger all officers by making them complicit, by making them accessories, and by making it clear that they are above the law.

So while you sit there, sympathizing with the criminals and becoming part of the problem by saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe”

First off, fuck you. This is exactly the problem: you can’t divide the world cleanly into unsympathetic criminals and sympathetic police officers. Not every cop is a hero, and not every person killed by a cop is a villain. Thinking that cops are incapable of doing wrong is why we have police departments and prosecutors’ offices who rally around bad cops to defend them from any legal consequences. Thinking that certain kinds of people–usually poor people, brown people, mentally ill people–are “criminals” is why we have cops pulling their guns without making any attempt to assess or defuse situations, why we have overpoliced communities and military tactics resulting in the continual harassment and injury of innocent people.

The problem is that we have police officers who are engaging in criminal conduct. Harassment is a crime. Assault is a crime. Battery is a crime. Murder is a crime. They do not stop being crimes when someone puts on a badge. Police should certainly be held to different standards, standards that befit their role as protectors of the peace. Those standards should not be lower than the standards that are used to judge civilians. All too often, they are. At least when unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death, his killer stood trial. At least when Jordan Davis was shot in his car for no reason, his killer was sent to jail. The cops who killed Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice haven’t even been indicted. That’s just the murders, just the high-profile cases, not the countless other instances of police brutality that occur day after day.

It’s not ungrateful or inconsistent to say that if you kill someone, particularly an unarmed someone, you should stand trial for that act. Whether or not they wear a badge, the question of whether or not the shooting was justified is one for a trial, not one for a grand jury or a blue wall of silence. This isn’t a perfect solution–the courts are hampered by the same biases as any other human institution–but it’s a better solution than this circling of paddy wagons.

and preaching an ignorant and biased agenda against an individual who would willingly die for you in an instant, no matter if you like them or not;

I’ll leave aside the irony of this diatribe calling out ignorance and bias with its Pollyannaish view of police and Manichean approach to law enforcement. The problem isn’t that police will willingly die for us, the problem is how willing they seem to be to kill for us. Whether or not we like it, whether or not it’s warranted, whether or not it does us any good.

while you sit there with hate and distaste over the fact that they are “all racist”

Citation please.

That said, if you’re complicit in a racist system, then it’s hard to wash off the stink. Study after study shows that law enforcement, from stops and searches on up to convictions and sentences, work differently based on the skin color of the defendant. That is a problem, it’s a race issue, and denying it helps no one.

and they can hide behind the badge and without mercy, murder anyone they please-while you sit there and bask in all the hatred that has been ignited this past year, understand that they will ALWAYS be there to help you.

Yes, they’ll always be here to help me, because I am a straight cisgendered white middle-class man.

But talk to rape victims, to homeless people, to people of color, to transgender people, to people with mental illnesses, to poor people, and you’ll find plenty of examples of how the police aren’t always there to help everyone.

I’d be curious who was helped by putting Eric Garner in a chokehold, by filling Tamir Rice and John Crawford full of bullets, by threatening and harassing their families, by gassing and assaulting protestors and journalists, by putting unstable cops back on the street with freshly-slapped wrists.

Certainly not the police. If the deaths of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have taught us anything, it’s that the perception of police as violent racists who can kill with impunity endangers cops as much as anyone else. They should be leading the campaign to force trigger-happy cops to stand trial, to halt excessive force and police brutality, and to ensure that cops who are unfit for duty aren’t then sent on duty. Because even if it’s just a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, what we’ve seen so far is a movement among cops to retain and protect those bad apples, heedless of the effect on the rest of the bushel. That solidarity, the “snitches get stitches” of the law enforcement world, results in distrust and animosity between the police and the people they’re supposed to protect. That’s not making the job safer for the Lius and Ramoses of the future, nor is it making life safer for the future Garners and Rices.

How could anyone have the audacity to hate the protectors? The unseen heroes of every day life?

How could anyone have the audacity to call this kind of conduct protection or heroic?

Matthew 5:9-
“Blessed are the peacekeepers, for they shall be called children of God.”

You might want to check that quote again.
And if you call this peace-making

…I’d hate to see what you think of as war.

God bless NYPD Officer Liu-EOW 12/20/2014
God bless NYPD Officer Ramos-EOW 12/20/2014
Godspeed gentlemen, your deaths will not be in vain.

No, sadly, they will. Just like the deaths of children in Sandy Hook and moviegoers in Aurora, and students in Isla Vista and countless other victims of gun violence perpetrated by unstable individuals, the deaths of these two officers are unlikely to result in any meaningful reforms in mental healthcare or gun control policies. They’re also unlikely to result in any change to police culture, because assholes and racists and bad apples of all sorts are too intent to blame these deaths on peaceful protestors and victims of police overreach, rather than on a rotten culture that excuses and defends those who would abuse their power.

-Signed, the grateful son of an oath keeping Peace Officer.

If only all officers kept both their oaths and the peace, you wouldn’t have protestors to blame this on.

On Secular Arguments and Conservative Atheists

As you may have heard, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, made a splash by attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week. The publicity was done for Silverman even before he arrived, since the invitation to American Atheists was revoked after outcry by religious conservatives, resulting in the “atheists unwelcome at CPAC” story he was no doubt expecting. Done and done, right?

Not so much, since Silverman apparently went to CPAC anyway, and gave interviews. He seems to think that there’s a hidden enclave of closet atheists in the halls of conservatism, and he’s just the man to draw them out (and also, presumably, to make them dues-paying members of American Atheists).

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Atheists’ outreach under Silverman has been focused not on convincing people of the atheist position, but on convincing people who are atheist-but-closeted to come out and be public with their disbelief. It’s a laudable goal.

Silverman’s also been vocal about making atheism a big tent, and less willing, on that front, to explicitly exclude some of the more hostile wings of the atheist movement. To Dave, as long as we’re all agreed that religion is generally wrong and bad, we’re all working together (or at least, we’re all willing to donate to American Atheists so they can accomplish tasks that we generally agree are important).
Silverman identifies himself as a conservative:

He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

And he’s got some particular ideas about what conservatism is and means, and how conservatism and atheism can be compatible:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
[…]
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

And looking at all that really makes me want to donate to American Atheists, so that maybe they’ll have enough money to buy Dave a clue.

Let’s start with the “secular argument[s] against abortion.” When I first saw that quote, my response was incredulity. What are these secular arguments for abortion? The ones I could remember hearing were really just the usual religious pro-lifers’ arguments, but with “human DNA” or some other such nonsense copy-pasted where a Catholic might say “soul.” They were as “secular” as Intelligent Design.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the arguments I’ve heard from anti-abortion activists have been secular in nature. I was conflating “secular argument against abortion” with “argument against abortion from a secularist.” Sure, there are all the appeals to Mother Teresa and the Pope and that bit of the Bible where God says he knew you before he formed you in the womb, but once you get past that, it’s mostly nonreligious reasons. Those big signs of misleadingly dismembered fetuses aren’t making any kind of religious argument; that “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper sticker isn’t making a religious argument, “If she wanted to have sex she should accept the consequences” isn’t a religious argument; “just because the father was a rapist is no reason to punish the child” is not only not a religious argument, but it flies in the face of the whole “sins of the father” notion that’s central (in one form or another) to most Christian denominations. Most of the arguments fall into one of those categories: “ewww, icky,” “it’s murder,” “sluts need to learn a lesson,” or “it’s a person!”

The problems there, then, are twofold: one, those arguments are crap, and two, the vast majority of atheists would agree about their crappiness. Now, recruiting some folks from CPAC into American Atheists might skew those numbers a bit, but the movement as it stands now isn’t exactly welcoming to the notion that abortion is some terrible wrong (and for good reason). Saying “there are secular argument[s] against abortion” and then suggesting that those arguments are better than the secular arguments opposing school prayer or supporting right-to-die and gay marriage1, is at best profoundly misleading.

It is, as I argued elsewhere, exactly the same kind of disingenuous misleading that accommodationist skeptics and the NCSE have engaged in with respect to science and religion. They’ll say “skepticism and religion are compatible,” or “you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution,” but both of those statements are misleading to the point of being insulting. The kinds of religion that are compatible with skepticism are either the ones that are so abstracted into deism or pantheism that they hardly resemble “religions” in any sensible use of the term, or the ones that are almost completely compartmentalized from skeptical criticism. The kinds of Christianity that are compatible with evolution are the ones that are so withdrawn into metaphor that they can square a loving and merciful god with a system of biology where progress is primarily driven by death, and that can accept a savior dying to remove a sin committed by people who never existed.

Similarly, the kinds of conservatism that are compatible with atheism are the ones which reject the social conservative platforms (except ones they can support through bad secular arguments), reject the religious right, and are mostly concerned with fiscal responsibility and personal freedoms (except the freedom of women to control their own bodies, because chicks amirite?). In other words, libertarians. Atheism and libertarianism are compatible? Color me shocked.

The thing is, if Dave Silverman wanted to find those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal(ish) conservative atheists, it seems like CPAC isn’t the place to do it. Sure, they’ll put Rand Paul up on stage, but the rest of the time? This year’s program featured presentations like “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” “Inventing Freedom: How English-Speaking Peoples Made the World Modern,” “More Guns, Less Crime,” and “Healthcare After Obamacare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors”2. Speakers included religious ideologues like pro-school prayer Jim DeMint, anti-gay Ben Carson, and creationist-if-the-money-is-right Ann Coulter. And Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, of course. This isn’t a libertarian convention full of Eisenhower Republicans outlining reasonable positions to maximize personal freedom and minimize government spending. It’s a convention of rich ideologues who want to be richer, even and especially if it means gutting programs that help the poor. And also, let’s go to war with anyone and everyone3.

Dave Silverman thinks that there are lots of closet conservative atheists, but he’s engaging in a bit of equivocation there. Dave Silverman’s definition of “conservative”–fiscal conservatism, gun rights, personal freedom, supporting military–is not the definition being employed by the first “C” in “CPAC.” CPAC skews more toward the social conservative theocracy that Silverman No-True-Scotsman’d as not real conservatism.

Which kind of brings us to that particular brand of Silverman cluelessness: where has he been for the last thirty years? How does he square his belief in “economic conservatism” with a party that started two off-the-books wars, wants to start more with Iran and Russia, and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, countless anti-abortion bills, and fighting gay marriage? Where is the economic conservatism there? Where is the military support in opposing bills to prosecute rapists in the ranks, or fighting against benefits for veterans? How much personal freedom does a person have when they’re working two jobs and still living below the povery line? When their food stamps benefits get cut over and over because the social safety net, and not corporate welfare, is a drain on the country’s resources? When their right to vote is eroded by classist, racist regulations designed to keep Republicans in office?

We either have to believe that Silverman is so blinkered in his politics that he’s bought into a series of mostly meaningless, mostly traditional buzzwords that the GOP likes to throw around as their platform because they sound better than “consistently trying to screw over 99% of the country,” or we have to believe that he’s a savvy, selfish asshole who thinks his right to own as many guns as he wants and his distaste for taxes trumps other people’s right to a living wage and personal security.

The more I try to think he’s one or the other, the more unconvinced I am by either option. The latter suggests that maybe he’s decided that going after rich donors in the bush is worth alienating the women and minorities already in the hands of American Atheists, but if that’s the case, then surely he recognizes that those donors aren’t both going to take the PR hit of associating with atheists and relinquish the control mechanism provided by fundamentalist religion. But if he really believes that “real conservatives” would support atheist causes, why make the appeal to anti-abortion arguments, which is a socially conservative issue?

The fact that it came as news to Silverman that there are anti-gay atheists makes me think he’s probably just profoundly out of touch. He doesn’t have clue one about most political issues that don’t directly affect him, and he doesn’t understand that by actively courting a group that promotes racist, misogynist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic policies, he’s going to alienate a lot of people who otherwise agree with him. Unless those racist misogynist homophobes are bringing tons of money to the anti-religion organization, then he’d probably be better served by trying to make the movement more welcoming to the people who are actually in it. Pandering to assholes while ignoring the complaints of members makes it look like your priorities are less in fostering community among atheists and more in gaining donations for your organization.

The organization should serve the members, not the other way around.


1. They’re really not, by the way. There are lots of people who argue that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business anyway, and that government shouldn’t be expanding, but reducing, its participation in private relationships. You could argue for school prayer on free speech grounds, or point to the fact that there’s no sharp line between “prayer” and other moment-of-silence type activities, or that there’s not always a clear distinction between student-led and staff-led activities, and that school prayer should be subject to the same equal-time principle as religious displays on public land, or interfaith ceremonial prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Frankly, I don’t see how you can assert bodily rights to make a pro-right-to-die argument and reject them when it comes to abortion. Are these arguments good? No, but they’re no worse than the secular arguments against abortion–and in the right-to-die case, they’re essentially the same. Except, you know, men get terminal illnesses too.

2. In case it’s not clear, let me outline briefly the problems that the generally science- and fact-friendly atheist community might have with these presentations. 1) Not according to all climate science; 2) Historians are likely to disagree, and even if true, it happened on the back of slavery and genocide; 3) Not according to all the evidence from the rest of the world; 4) How will an insurance mandate result in fewer people having insurance, and where are doctors going to go to find a more conservative healthcare system?

3. The one exception to all this seems to be that the attendance at CPAC leans more personal-freedom-libertarian than the leadership and speakership, based on the polling results that CPAC has on their main page. But given the stark contrast between what those people cite as priorities (drug decriminalization, isolationism) and what the party’s actual priorities are (attacking abortion, starting wars wherever possible), they look an awful lot like useful idiots, prized by party establishment for their votes and their unwillingness to take said votes to any particular third party, despite not being served by this one. But then, getting people to vote against their own interests has been the GOP platform for decades.

Perspective

Dear Muslimo

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you get stopped and harassed and interrogated and strip searched every time you try to travel . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you’re constantly judged based on superficial similarities to bad people, and you can’t live where you please without enduring rude questions and harassment from rubes who think you’re a terrorist or infiltrator, and the government is allowed to detain you indefinitely without trial if you behave suspiciously, and you’ll never be able to take a piloting class or run a marathon or buy fertilizer without ending up on a dozen watch lists. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor British brothers have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, he calls himself “Richard Dawkins,” and do you know what happened to him? A TSA security agent took away his jar of honey. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He took his jar of honey. Of course he protested, and of course he knew the preexisting security rules, but even so . . .

And you, Muslimo, think you have inconvenience, intrusion, and harassment to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Tom

(Relevant History)

The Moral High Ground

I promise, I’ll be done with Atheismpluscrap after this, but they’re just such a bottomless pit of ignorance and cognitive dissonance that it’s hard to resist the urge to document it for posterity.

Anyway, while I think most folks who sling around gendered slurs like they’re the height of discourse has already ceded the moral high ground, it’s not often that I get to see such a stunning display of blatant hypocrisy (or possibly incompetence; Atheismpluscrap is a bit like an ELIZA bot built to demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect) in action. To whit:

@atheismplusdogma: @Doubting_Tom it's duplicitous to call this movement atheism+

(Screencap)

I disagreed, but the point is that Atheismplusdogma appears to recognize that duplicity is bad. Later, I said this, in a candid moment:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap I'm not particularly interested in atheism anymore, I can't speak for the movement. I barely participate.

It’s true. I have an account on the Atheism+ forums, but I haven’t visited in quite some time, and got bored and disinterested pretty quickly after it started. I think it’s important to promote secular community and dismantle religious privilege, but “no gods exist” is one small, relatively insignificant, completely impractical thing I’ve learned about our vast universe. It has little more bearing on my life than the fact that unicorns and leprechauns don’t exist. I’ve grown far more concerned with the people and systems that do exist, and how we can make them better.

Not to mention I’m tired of dealing with the puffed-up pseudointellectual bigot dudebros who have rallied around the term “atheist” and think that adopting it confers magical reason-powers on everything they do or say. People who think “gods don’t exist” is somehow the pinnacle of human knowledge are people who I have no interest in or respect for.

Anyway, somehow that tweet got twisted by Atheismpluscrap into this:

(Screencap)

@atheismpluscrap: #AtheismPlus insider admits “they’re not interested in atheism”

Now, Atheismpluscrap has had some difficulty understanding symbols and words, so maybe they just didn’t know that when you use those double quotation marks, especially after saying “X says,” you’re supposed to be quoting what another person has said verbatim. Deviating from that means you’re falsifying the quotation, and omitting relevant context is quote-mining. You know, of the sort that religious creationists do.

It wasn’t the only time Atheismpluscrap used that tactic:

@Doubting_Tom: Yep, one tweet is really all you need. "Gods don't exist" – and that takes care of atheism. What next?

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom all human beings should be treated equally. What next?

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap Well, next we determine the source of inequalities, and how to correct them. What are the logical conclusions of atheism?

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom if you're not a deceptive liar, explain why A+ tweet about feminism, based on your "what next" logic. Tripped up.

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap A+ tweet about feminism to draw attention to ways in which people (in this case, women) aren't treated equally. See, "all people should be treated equally" is prescriptive & suggests action. "Gods don't exist" is a conclusion. And as we say all the time to theists, you can't get from "gods don't exist" to any other action without other premises.

Became…

(Screencap)

@atheismpluscrap: #AtheismPlus insider admits “it’s all about feminism, we tell theists there’s no god, end of”

It’s silly, because Atheismpluscrap is a thoroughly unpleasant twit, but it’s enlightening to see such stark proof of the uselessness of “atheism.” As I said a couple of posts ago, there’s nothing about atheism that requires its adherents to be reasonable or consistent people, and here we have proof: a Twitterer who assigns phrenological meanings to Tweet/follower/following ratios, shifts goalposts with all the skill of a creationist, and openly flouts his hypocrisy:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap Yes, I'm the one ho [sic] should be embarrassed, because you make accusations of duplicity then make up quotations.

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom that's what #AtheismPlus cunts are doing every day. Your cults tactics. Do you want the last word? Is it di important.

There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant that someone had applied skepticism and good reasoning skills to the question of god’s existence. There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant rejecting the unreasonable, fallacious tactics of religion, and the reprehensible moral systems they promoted.

I know better now.

The Shocking Truth SHE Doesn’t Want You To Know About!!!1!

Yesterday, I introduced you to the kinds of laughable conspiracy theories that can result when, like Twitterer Atheismpluscrap, you choose comforting delusions over unpleasant realities.

But man, if you’re going to believe ridiculous things, you might as well go all-in, right? “Atheism plus is a covert religious group trying to discredit atheism by promoting fascist feminism” barely registers on the conspiracy theory wackyometer. Chart of conspiracy theories where craziness is on the x-axis going from less to more crazy as you go left to right, and where importance is on the y-axis, going from less to more important from bottom to top.It’s on the very bottom of this chart, and only slightly toward the right-hand side. So let’s help Atheismpluscrap out a bit by punching up their conspiracy.

It all starts in Atlantis, a perfect society built on MRA principles, where the social recognition of women as inferior emotional sperm-vampires led to the development of a technologically-advanced continent the likes of which have not been seen since. When men are not distracted by the needs of and endless competition for women, there is no need for war or hierarchy. There was no need for stifling government in Atlantis, for the perfect free market directed all things, unsullied by feminine influence.

This is not to say that women were mistreated in Atlantis; quite the contrary. They were well provided-for, never needing to work beyond mating. The lack of a system of marriage or paternity ensured that children would be raised by he community as a whole, without distracting men with the unnatural demands of monogamy and the so-called “nuclear family”–nuclear because it’s radioactive, causing a slow wasting-away death of both individual and society.

Of course this hyper-rational, enlightened culture was atheistic. The concept of gods never even occurred to a society without the feminine invention of “faith,” or knowledge derived from womanly “feelings” and “intuition.”

But then there were the Amazons, a warlike, man-hating, petty matriarchy living on the mainland. The influence of the Amazons on other cultures was what led to the development of most violence and disease in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and they pillaged technological advances from the men of those lands. They spread their philosophies of religion and feminism to indoctrinate women and enslave men to a system of faith-based “tradition,” installing an unachievable male ideal as the head of a system of gods which emphasized the notion that males and females could be equals.

Atlantis had the oceans and its technology to protect it from the toxic influence of fascist feminism, but eventually those barriers were breached, the Amazons wearing away at their defenses until they could no longer stand the assault. Once the women of Atlantis began to believe the comforting myths of the Amazons, they rose up and demanded male enslavement, or male extermination. Some enlightened men escaped, but the knowledge and technology of Atlantis was scattered to the winds, and the island itself was lost forever.

The Amazonian system of religion spread, changing here and there, but always holding men in an emasculating position subordinate to some greater man. This, along with the inventions of sex competition and marriage and paternity, created competition and hierarchy between men, and led to all wars and conflicts, all class stratification and government.

There have been men who stood up to this system, but the system endures, striking them down whenever possible. Abraham Lincoln was a strong red-pill man, who recognized that all men were equal, superior to women, and so the feminazi woman supremacists had him killed by an effeminate thespian. John F. Kennedy was a virile red-pill man, openly flaunting the oppression of marriage and selecting multiple mates as any alpha deserves, so the gynotalitarian femifascists had him killed by a simpering beta who bought into the feminine collectivist lie of Communism. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were fearless red-pill men who openly spoke about putting women in their rightful places, so with the help of manginas like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, they emasculated John with a forced feminazi marriage and killed and replaced Paul with a beta-male double. When John still wouldn’t cooperate, openly promoting the rational standards of world peace and atheism, compelling people to throw off the government shackles and make a new society, they had him killed by a beta who was infatuated with a book about a frustrated, emasculated mangina.

Whenever men have banded together to fight hysteroppresion, women have subverted their organizations. The Illuminati began as an enlightened male attempt to get back to the roots of rationalist male primacy, but was subverted from within by false doctrines about gender equality. Now, it’s another arm of the gynocracy, secretly manipulating subservient beta-males (e.g., Obama) into positions of world power, and opposing the alphas who make it there through sheer force of manliness (e.g., Putin, Clinton). Freemasonry was much the same, beginning as a masculine attempt to exalt manly physical labor and building things, but subverted by female-controlled betas into being obsessed with girly secrets and fashion accessories and hierarchies.

And now atheism has risen up to battle the evils of feminist religion, and it’s strengthened through alliances with Men’s Rights Advocates and libertarianism. Each of the three groups has a pillar of Atlantean social perfection, which is why feminists are so afraid of them. If they aren’t stopped, then Atlantis may rise again, and this time thanks to globalization and the Internet, the whole world would be part of the glorious Atlantean perfection.

With the control of the FemIlluminati, it’s easy to marginalize libertarians, because the few red-pill elected men like Ron Paul can’t get a foothold in the woman-defined system. With the power of Pussy Control over emasculated beta-men, it’s easy to marginalize MRAs as “misognynist” and “sexist” and creep shame them. But atheism isn’t so easy to marginalize, because it’s so obviously correct with its foundations in masculine science and reason. The enlightened red-pill men who reject feminine religion are too rational and intellectual to fall for the other lies of the hegematriachy. So feminists must resort to other methods to strangle the nascent Atlantean perfection before it leaves its crib.

And that method is Atheism Plus, atheism tainted with the lies of feminism and run by subservient lickspittle beta-males like P.Z. Mayers who are controlled by female supremacists and their fanatic religious adherence to feminist dogma. By insinuating themselves into atheism, they plan to subvert it just like 18th-century radfems subverted the Illuminati, by diverting its efforts and energy to hopeless, unrelated causes, and causing internecine strife by imposing a hysterical hierarchy and forcing inter-male competition for atheist female mates. If they succeed, the rational power of atheism will be scuttled, and the resources that remain will be redirected toward supporting the gynocratic rule of the shadow matriarchy, setting back the rebirth of the perfect Atlantean system, perhaps beyond reclamation.

This is why the alliance between atheists, MRAs, and libertarians is so vital, and why the feminarchist powers are so keen to silence liberated red-pill alpha-males like Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette and The Amazing Atheist. Their natural male power and charisma can’t help but convince people, even semi-rational women, and drive them toward the natural state of humanity, which is the restoration of the Atlantean standard. We need only protect, amplify, and follow these voices, and we can defeat hysteriarchical gynofascist tittytalitarianism forever!

There we go. That’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory. If you’re going to be so unrealistic and unreasonable as to believe in a comforting conspiracy theory, that’s a respectable theory to buy into. Anything else just makes it look like you’re sacrificing reason and evidence and skepticism for nothing.

On Our Team

I knew someone calling themselves “atheismpluscrap” wasn’t likely to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but some of their stuff got retweeted into my timeline today, and it presented me with amusement, fodder for the “skeptics being profoundly unskeptical” tag, and an opportunity for a teachable moment. So, what the hell, here’s a blog post.

My involvement began when I saw these gems, in response to this tweet by Helenarth (hooray for clever puns!):
atheismpluscrap1
The relevant quotations:

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap How can someone be a “fake” atheist? / @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth they join #AtheismPlus and say they’re atheists in order to discredit atheism. In actual fact they are religious @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @ool0n <- proven to be deceitful 40,000 followers for his bot almost overnight. Check how many twts about atheism. He's a theist @Helenarth

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap Wait, so not tweeting about atheism = theist? @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth in a faction called Atheism+ but doesn't tweet about atheism. Has a block list of atheists. Argues with atheists, never theists

That’s where I came in. See, Atheismpluscrap seems to have a misunderstanding about the definition of “atheism,” which is the lack of belief in gods. You’ll notice that nowhere in that definition is there anything about block lists of atheists, arguing with atheists, or arguing with theists. The sole qualification for being an atheist is lacking belief in gods, just as the sole qualification for being a theist is believing in at least one god. This is particularly funny since, in my looking for those tweets to screencap, I found Atheismpluscrap chiding another Twitterer for “hav[ing] trouble with simple word definitions” ([link] [screencap]).

So anyway, I pointed out this little definition problem:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @helenarth And strangely, none of those traits are necessary to be a theist. In fact, only one trait is.

I’ll admit here that I hadn’t seen the conspiratorial second tweet up there; I was just amused by an atheist trying to prove that they could determine a person’s beliefs through a No True Scotsman argument. So I was a little surprised to see the conspiracy theory come raging forth:

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom if he's discrediting atheism by pretending to be an atheist he won't wear a cross, dumb ass

Not entirely sure how you discredit atheism, since it’s just a lack of belief in gods. I suppose you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that gods exist, but that’s about it.

But what Atheismpluscrap is doing here is something we’ve seen quite a bit of in the atheoskeptisphere, with different variations. The “X isn’t a real atheist, but is a theist trying to make us look bad” argument gets pulled out from time to time. S.E. Cupp is a common target, but really any conservative or religion-friendly atheist is going to get it at some point, and probably some of the bigger assholes too. Basically any atheist that any other atheist might be embarrassed by.

Another common variant is “X is a secret atheist,” which got trotted out about Barack Obama a lot in the early years of his presidency, and got bandied about regarding Mother Teresa when letters about her crisis of faith surfaced. The historical spin on this is “If X were around today, they’d be an atheist,” which we see about most of the Founding Fathers at one point or another.

And in every case, it’s about wishful thinking. It’s all about seeing atheism/skepticism as a team, and wanting to have the right people on your team. We like to think that because we’ve adopted a label and started slinging around the word “community,” that it means we have more in common than just a lack of belief in gods. We like to think that we arrived at the right conclusion for the right reasons, and that the people who agree with us did as well. We like to think that being an atheist is a sign of being super-rational, and like to imagine that other atheists are similarly super-rational. And I suspect a lot of that is because the surge in atheism and the building of an atheist community, over the last several years, comes on the backs of books and campaigns by scientists and philosophers who came to their atheism from positions of scientific skepticism. There’s a lot of overlap between the atheist and skeptic communities, and that overlap creates a lot of impressions which aren’t necessarily true.

And chief among them is the notion that anyone who values reason, logic, science, or skepticism is necessarily an atheist, and vice versa. When we encounter unreasonable atheists, we feel like they’re giving us a bad name and want to make it clear that they don’t represent us, that they’re not on our team. And when we encounter reasonable people who don’t profess atheism, we like to imagine that they’re just keeping it a secret, but they actually are on our team. We like to believe this because it’s comforting and validating.

Unfortunately, like many comforting and validating beliefs, it’s also false.

There are many paths to rejecting the belief in gods, and skepticism is only one of them. Being skeptical about some things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re skeptical about everything, or that you’re exercising skepticism properly and not dipping into denialism. Being a scientist or science enthusiast doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand things beyond your expertise, or that you’re applying skepticism. And none of those suggest that you’re a worthwhile person to be around.

And anyone who’s paid any attention should be able to rattle off a dozen examples off the top of their head. Bill Maher is an atheist who’s an alt-med proponent and science denialist. Penn & Teller are skeptical atheists who used their show to promote global warming denialism. Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel laureate who blundered his way into promoting vitamin megadosing pseudoscience. And in terms of assholery, you’ve got the racism and Islamophobia of guys like Dawkins and Harris and Pat Condell, the disgusting misogyny of guys like the Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t, and plenty of patronizing, smarmy douchebags.

It’s tempting to think that they’re not really atheists, but what reason do we have to doubt that? There’s nothing about being an atheist that keeps you from believing all manner of ridiculous things, just ask the Raelians. We have to come to grips that not everyone who agrees with us on one thing will agree on other things, and that not everyone comes to beliefs through reason and logic. The scary thing is that it suggests that maybe we’re not as reasonable as we think we are.

Rather than face that discomfort, however, folks like Atheismpluscrap follow the train of logic that results from it: if they’re not really atheists, they must be theists. If they’re actually theists, why do they call themselves atheists? It must be to make atheists look bad.

Because apparently that’s something that theists are worried about, despite the fact that many of them seem to think atheists are all just amoral hedonists. And the way they choose to make atheists look bad is by…setting up a block bot to serve a particular subset of atheists, and arguing with some atheists on Twitter. So no, that block bot can’t be for a subset of atheists. In fact, all of Atheism Plus must be some kind of religion trying to infiltrate atheism and bring it down from the inside. And they’ll do that by promoting feminism and social justice issues. Because…profit?

Like any conspiracy theory, it falls apart when you consider motivations and scope and Occam’s Razor. The most parsimonious explanation is that these are simply other people who lack belief in god but disagree with you on other points. I don’t deny that The Amazing Atheist probably is, in fact, an atheist. I think he’s also a giant frothing asshole and the only amazing thing about him is his bigotry and ego. There’s not really a contradiction there, much though one might wish there were.

I flippantly pointed this out to Atheismpluscrap:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @Helenarth "Discrediting atheism"? That's some conspiracy theory you've got there, chief. Ever hear of Occam's Razor?

Atheismpluscrap responded by asking “ru in a+ ?” as if it had any bearing on whether or not his conspiracy theory had any validity. They liked my next tweet, which lampooned the conversation:

@Doubting_Tom: So-called atheist throwing out No True Scotsman arguments is worried about fakers discrediting atheism. Almost ironic.

I wished in that moment that they’d had the word “skeptic” in their ‘nym, since it would have made the irony less Morissettian. But Atheismpluscrap apparently lacked the reading comprehension to get that I was making fun of them:
Atheismpluscrap4

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom I agree with you. I’m glad you too have rumbled A+. Welcome aboard

It’s the same cognitive error there: Atheismpluscrap agreed with what I said, so they assumed I must also be against Atheism Plus and on-board with their conspiracy ravings. I suspect at that point was when they bothered to have a look at my timeline, because their next tweet was this:
Atheismpluscrap5

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom 21721 tweets 399 followers. Mmmmm. Maybe social interaction isn’t for you? #Boring #incoherent #AtheismPlus

As arguments go, it’s a swing and a miss. How many tweets I’ve written and how many followers I have has no real bearing on whether or not Atheismpluscrap’s conspiracy theories are reasonable, nor does it have any bearing on the truth of any of my comments. It’s a bog-standard argument from popularity fallacy, and the sort of thing that, as a skeptic and atheist, I’m embarrassed to see from another atheist.

But I don’t doubt that Atheismpluscrap is an atheist–even though by their standards, I should. After all, Atheismpluscrap argues with atheists, tweets obsessively about atheism plus, and even compliments theists! By their own reasoning, we should assume that Atheismpluscrap is a mole out to make atheists look bad by slinging around words like “fascism” and “cunt” in order to make atheists look hateful and stupid.

But Atheismpluscrap is not good at reasoning, which is why we don’t come to that conclusion. Instead, we use the principle of parsimony to accept their word regarding religious belief, and recognize that there’s nothing preventing an atheist from being that kind of hateful twit. Atheismpluscrap is on Team Atheist, embarrassing though that may be, and that’s something everyone else on Team Atheist has to deal with.

Why, it’s almost enough for a group of team members to split off and form their own team.

Projection

I run a pretty small blog here, so I’m always excited to see the little counter dealie up on the WordPress toolbar showing big lines to represent how many hits I’m getting. It’s a nice change of pace from the vast flatness I usually see. So, being curious, I sometimes check out where my hits are coming from. One recent source of visits has been a thread on the JREF forums, linking specifically because of my spat with Tim Farley. Here’s the relevant post:
Poster "Humes fork" saying "Tim Farley in a kerfuffle [links to my "Unskeptical Complaints" post] about Block Bot. Not surprisingly, what makes them angry is disagreement with them."
I’m not going to engage with that tired bit of mythology. I’ve dealt with variations before, and it’s repeated there without basis or substance. It’s an empty phrase, and you can judge for yourself whether or not what made me angry was “disagreement.”

But I found myself thinking about this post today, because of a Facebook post by JREF president D.J. Grothe:

There is an impressive distemper these days on the internets.
Many smart, good people that I know personally seem to fear this “call-out culture” online that is going on right now in many communities online. Folks are immobilized by a moral scare or panic that they think they are watching unfold presently. As for me, I think it all seems increasingly like some surreal science fiction imagining of some bizarre future dystopia. And so, I say:
Consensual sex — between any mature adult male or female etc. — is a human good. It is something that should be prized and promoted (would there be world peace if people just had more and better sex, ha?).
But instead I think unduly-moralistic scolds end up actively diminishing human flourishing by their sex-negativity.
And I curse the unholy alliance of the quack far-left so-called feminists: a different kind of ardent feminist than I am — and the authoritarian anti-sex rightist religionists whom I used to run with decades ago. (How the heck is it that these two equal opposites agree on so very much these days, and the two last decades, too?).
I have a disturbing answer, but it doesn’t work for a social networking or FB comment..

More accurately, my thoughts were spurred by D.J.’s response to some critical comments on that Facebook post. First, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte posted this:

“I love consensual sex! It’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why it’s super critical that consent exists, because when consent isn’t there, sex—and sexual behavior ranging from flirting to intercourse—stops being great and even really “sex” and starts being harassment, assault, and rape. So yea, feminists! By making consent a front and center issue, we can make sex better, more pleasurable, and more frequent—after all, nothing makes people less willing to have sex than being afraid that their right to say no won’t be respected. One question, though: Can you name some of these “feminists” that you’re talking about that oppose consensual sex? I’m pretty well-versed in feminism and don’t know any of the ones you’re talking about.”

Look at that! Not a nasty word, not an intemperate statement. It’s positively cheerful, with a genuine question at the end, looking for that thing that skeptics love above all, evidence in support of some claim. It got a whole bunch of likes, apparently more than anything else on the thread!

D.J. deleted the comment.

In response, Lance Finney posted this:

DJ,
I’m curious what your commenting policy is on your wall. Earlier, I saw a comment from Amanda Marcotte that praised consent and asked you for examples of feminists that matched the description you gave in your first comment in this thread.
Did you delete her comment?
If so, why? As I recall it, there wasn’t anything abusive about her comment. If you have a policy of deleting contrary comments, what is the trigger?

Look at that, perfectly polite! A question of clarification! If there’s one thing skeptics love as much as evidence, it’s clarity and good questions!

D.J. deleted the comment and blocked Lance Finney.

So, um…who is it, again, who can’t handle disagreement? I eagerly await an answer from the JREF boards.

An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

and…
6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched Hotwire.com for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

A follow-up

You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.

I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.

Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.

In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.

But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.

This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.

What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.

It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.

Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.

All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.

That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.

When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.

This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.

Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.

I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?

This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”

Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.

It makes you a good podcaster.

Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.


Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.

You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.