Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, riding in the car with my parents, they were almost always listening to talk radio. And talk radio, as you probably know, is almost always conservative. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh, which didn’t leave much of an impression on me (I remember the theme song and some parodies, and a bit about how left-handed people were breastfed too much, which I later realized must have actually been about left-wingers). I rode with my mom more frequently, so I remember more of the frequent shows. One, the only one I ever actually enjoyed, was Dr. Dean Edell’s show. He’s an actual medical doctor who talks straight and gives good advice and is generally awesome. The other was Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

I listened to a lot of Dr. Laura as a kid. I remember all of the “I am my kid’s mom/dad” calls; I remember all her advice that sometimes seemed reasonable and spot-on and other times seemed ridiculous and reality-challenged. I know that she’s a doctor of physiology, not anything relevant to giving advice, she’s not much of a fan of “shacking up” or divorce (some irony there) or gay people, she generally sides against men (unless she thinks the woman in a situation is somehow impure) and that she’s generally pretty prudish and puritanical for someone who has some topless pictures floating around. Finding the letter to Dr. Laura that circulated around the Internet several years back and was adapted into a West Wing scene was a major step in getting over my homophobia (and, frankly, my religion, since prior to that my main use for the Bible was condemning homosexuality).

So, when Dr. Laura had her latest bigoted flame-out recently, I can’t say I was either surprised or disappointed. In fact, the only potentially surprising thing is that this particular instance was racism instead of homophobia.

For those who have somehow avoided the latest non-story in the news cycle, here’s the scoop: On August 10th, Schlessinger took a call from a black woman named Jade who was offended by racially insensitive comments made by her white husband’s family, which her husband remained silent about. Here’s the full call:
http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf
So, Schlessinger’s immediate reaction was to suggest that Jade was just being hypersensitive, so she asked for an example. The caller said they had a neighbor who comes over and says things like “how do you black people like doin’ this” and so forth. Schlessinger immediately says that she doesn’t think such comments are racist.

Let me pause here and suggest that “you people” is probably the most bigotry-infused phrase in the English language. It suggests that the person you’re talking to is not an individual, but a member of some larger collective who are all the same–as the rest of this neighbor’s relayed comment suggests he thinks. “You black people” don’t all like the same things or do things the same way, because they’re individuals. The whole edifice of bigotry is built on treating people like they’re not individual people.

Schlessinger continues, suggesting that a lot of black people voted for Barack Obama just because he was half-black, not because of his politics (Dear Dr. Laura: without contradicting yourself, please explain how Obama defeated Alan Keyes in his 2004 Senate race). “It was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise.” She then proceeded to make a “white men can’t jump” joke regarding her black bodyguard, and the caller asked “what about the n-word?” Schlessinger then says that “black guys use the word all the time.” And then Schlessinger, who is not a black guy, says it three times. She trots out the usual racist faux-confusion regarding the word: “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

No, it’s not very confusing. The “n-word” has a lot of baggage, because for so long it was used by white people to disparage black people. It’s a symbol of black oppression. The movement among blacks to use the word themselves has been a reclaiming of that symbol, a way of demonstrating that the word doesn’t have the power to keep them down, that they can rob it of its oppressive connotations. But we are not yet to the point where a white person can throw it around without invoking those negative connotations. White people still have a privileged position, and racism–institutional, personal, casual, and political–still affects blacks. When that’s no longer the case, maybe the term will become harmless enough that white people can just throw it around.

Moreover, that some black people use the word does not suggest that all black people are comfortable with the word being used. Making that assumption is, once again, seeing black people as some kind of hive mind where they all think the same because they all have similar amounts of melanin in their skin. Which is racism.

After a commercial break, Schlessinger continues talking over Jade in order to trot out her false equivalency canard, complain about how racism should be over because we elected a black guy, and to accuse Jade of having a chip on her shoulder. After saying the n-word four more times, she then complains that she can’t finish a sentence, something she’s failed to allow her caller to do repeatedly–note that she hasn’t addressed the original fucking question yet at all, she’s just used the caller as a springboard to complain about how black people can’t just sit down and shut up and be happy that they got one of their own into the White House.

Ah, yes, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where a black guy is President, and that’ll be enough.”

Schlessinger then tells Jade not to take her out of context, not to “NAACP” her (whatever the fuck that means), and hangs up. She then says “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

She then goes off on how, if you belong to a minority, people are going to ask you what that minority thinks about things. Being a woman who converted to Judaism, I would think that Schlessinger would have some kind of handle on the problem with that kind of thinking, but about the closest she comes to understanding it is “Of course there isn’t a one-think per se. But in general there’s ‘think.'” Okay, perhaps that’s true with, say, a religion, which has doctrines and dogmas that everyone is supposed to believe–not all Catholics will share the same position on any given issue, but there may indeed be an “official Catholic position” on that issue–but it’s not even slightly true when you’re talking about race or gender or other inborn traits. There is no black dogma. There is no doctrine of womanhood. There is no reason to expect that all, or even a majority, of people in non-religious minorities will think the same thing about any topic. And the assumption that they would is bigotry.

Schlessinger proceeds to say the n-word four more times, then attempts to excuse it by saying that it’s okay because she didn’t call anyone that. She was just using the word as a word, nothing wrong with that at all. I can think of a particular k-word and c-word that I might throw around, and I’m sure someone like Laura Schlessinger would have absolutely no problem with that.

Her rant meanders on into conspiracy mongering and more complaining about how Obama’s election should mean that all black people need to shut up about racism, not in so many words.

So, Schlessinger took a bunch of flak for her remarks and gave a typical notpology the next day. As they did in 2000 after her homophobic screeds, some people suggested boycotting her sponsors, and specifically called for the sponsors to demonstrate whether or not they endorsed her statements. At least one, General Motors, dropped her show in the aftermath. Schlessinger then announced on Larry King’s show a few days later that she was going to quit radio. Her reason?

SCHLESSINGER: The reason is: I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind, and in my heart, what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.

[…]

SCHLESSINGER: You know, when I started in radio, if you said something somebody didn’t agree with and they didn’t like, they argued with you. Now, they try to silence you. They try to wipe out your ability to earn a living and to have your job. They go after affiliates. They send threats to sponsors.

KING: That’s their right, too.

SCHLESSINGER: Yes, but I don’t hatch the right to say what I need to say. My First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate. They want to eliminate.

Ah, yes, her First Amendment rights have been violated, so she’s going to quit. I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and that’s why I know what it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also, certain people are entitled to a national radio talk show, and the people have no right to hold those people accountable for their speech.” Those Founding Fathers, always looking ahead.

The First Amendment is pretty damn clear on how it applies. It’s very straightforward, and yet conservatives in particular seem to have a lot of trouble understanding what it means. It says that government isn’t allowed to make laws impinging on free speech. Nowhere in this debacle has government done anything. Schlessinger’s rights remain intact. What she wants, and what she can’t have, is for her speech rights to trump other people’s speech rights. She wants to be able to speak without consequence, but the beautiful brilliance of the First Amendment is that it guarantees everyone the same right to speak freely. Moreover, it gives everyone the right to assemble and speak freely, including speaking to the sponsors of radio talk shows. Schlessinger is entitled to speak her mind; what she is not entitled to is a platform from which to do that. She has that platform only so long as her sponsors continue paying for it. If the sponsors decide that she’s no longer profitable, whether it’s because she’s become irrelevant or because her association with them is bad PR, then it’s well within their right to stop giving her money. And the sponsors wouldn’t know she was bad PR if the public wasn’t relating their bad feelings to them.

So, what Schlessinger really has a problem with is free speech, free assembly, and the free market. Why do conservatives hate our freedoms?

But honestly, I never would have commented on this idiocy if noted Constitutional scholar Sarah Palin hadn’t chimed in:
I tried reading her Facebook essay, but I just couldn't do it.
Volumes could be written about the insensitive idiocy it’d take to use the words “reload” and “shackles” in the context of white-on-black racism. But I’m going to ignore that to hit on the Constitutional point. Activists trying to hold Schlessinger responsible for what she says are not “Constitutional obstructionists,” and at no point in this did Schlessinger’s First Amendment rights cease “2exist.” In fact, given how much exposure she’s had because of this, she’s been able to exercise those rights more often and to a wider audience than she has in about a decade.

Keep in mind that this woman was the Governor of a state for a short time, and was fairly close to being Vice President of the United States. And she doesn’t understand the most basic points of the First Amendment.

But the real irony is in her obvious hypocrisy. After a tiff with David Letterman over some jokes that she found “offensive” and “contribut[ing] to some of the problems we have in society,” she took umbrage with Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. See, Rahm called the plans of a group of liberals “fucking retarded,” and Palin’s youngest son has Down Syndrome. She said that Emanuel’s remarks were “unacceptable” and “heartbreaking” and called for the President to “eliminate” him (presumably by firing, and not firing squad). In fact, in the full quote, Palin even draws a parallel to another kind of situation that we would find appalling:

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, surely if a public figure as famous as a one-time Illinois Congressman and White House Chief of Staff, someone with the combined fame of Danny Davis and Evelyn Lieberman, used the “N-word,” we would all be terribly appalled! Why, we’d probably even ask for them to be fired!

Or not. Instead we’d defend them, call them “powerful” and “effective,” and chastize those who criticize them and call for their termination. Clearly, former Governor Palin’s views have changed on the subject, and that’s understandable. We all change our minds now and again. So I’m sure, Mrs. Palin being a person of consistent, steadfast values, that she would have no problem with people throwing around those terms which she once found “appalling.”

So throw off the shackles, America, and show just how powerful and effective you are in defying the Constitutional obstructionists in our mollycoddled society. Say it loud and proud, knowing that the former Governor of Alaska supports your Constitutionally-secured right to say that Sarah Palin is fucking retarded!

Bumper Crop

“Simple Living Saves Lives.”

So proclaimed the window sticker I saw on a car today, the words written around an old-school windmill. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the naturalistic fallacy stated so succinctly and so wrongly.

Yes, Simple Living Saves Lives. Unless you’re an infant. Or a premature birth. Or deformed. Or exposed to common viruses and bacteria as a child. Or injured in accidents with “simple” technology. Or injured by animals. Or ingesting parasites from insufficiently sanitized food and cooking utensils. Or infected through unsanitary living conditions. Or infected with one of many dangerous STIs from insufficiently-protected/informed sexual encounters. Or pregnant. Or infected with a disease that’s only treatable by modern medicine. Or requiring modern surgery. Or a cancer patient. Or a person with a heart condition. Or someone with a propensity for strokes. Or an elderly person. Or a myriad of other things that endanger people’s lives, and that are only correctable through modern, “complicated” living.

The sentiment is naïve pastoral nonsense, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least four hundred years. Sure, technology causes new problems, but the whole reason we have it in the first place is because it solves problems as well. Pastoralists forget that, which means they also implicitly forget an important part of that: in the past, we still had problems.

So, yes, there are lives that would have been saved if we all still lived in agrarian societies with limited technology. You wouldn’t see people dying due to radiation poisoning or plane crashes or air pollution due to car exhausts. But you’d probably see a lot more people dying of heatstroke or injuries from domesticated animals or ergot poisoning. The increasing world population, the increasing number of healthy elderly and the decreasing infant and child mortality rate in the developed world are testaments to the point that the complexities of modern life save more lives than they end.

And no lives are saved by forgetting history and idealizing the past.

Oh for the love of Pete, America.

Dear America (or at least the American Newsmedia),

Can you please stop acting like a particularly brain-damaged hyperactive dog?

Seriously, there are real things happening in the world. There are real concerns that deserve to be reported. A sizable portion of Pakistan is underwater. Russia has been on fire for weeks, and now in addition to facing concerns about nuclear plant safety and radioactive material left over from Chernobyl, they’re also facing major storms. Whooping cough is making a resurgence in the United States, and has killed several people already. The Taliban recently stoned a couple to death for adultery. Google and Verizon are working on a deal that may have serious implications for net neutrality. The ban on gay marriage was overturned in California.

But the American newsmedia doesn’t seem to care about those kinds of things, because some Muslims want to build a community center in the same general neighborhood where some other Muslims knocked down a couple of buildings nine years ago. This non-story results from the usual set of demagogues, fearmongers, and asshats, pissing and moaning that some non-Christians would dare have the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to think they could exercise their First Amendment rights and legally purchase a real estate property for private use! I guess it’s because they’re doing it in within a three-block radius of where something particularly nasty happened due to people of the same general religious faith almost a decade ago. It’s the same reason that those same people go into a tizzy whenever a Christian church opens up within a few blocks of an abortion clinic, or when a Japanese restaurant opens in Hawai’i.

Oh, they don’t? But wouldn’t that make them terrible hypocrites?

Oh.

Seriously, America. You’re outraged over a couple of liberal Muslim immigrants from allied nations (one-half of the couple behind the community center is from Kuwait. You know, the country we protected from Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War) building the Muslim equivalent of a YMCA (called “Park51”) in the general vicinity of the Twin Towers. People are saying it’s “in bad taste.” And yet, you seem to be just fine with the strip club, Off-Track Betting place, and Hookah Bar in the same radius. Are you telling me that the strip club is in good taste? That Off-Track Betting is in good taste? That tobacco hasn’t killed large numbers of New Yorkers in the recent past? You’re being stupid, America.

There are so many ways in which this attitude is wrong that I scarcely know where to begin. Let’s start with that popular conservative meme that New Yorkers are out-of-touch elitists, not “real Americans,” an idea that, just a few short weeks ago, was exemplified in the confirmation hearings over Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. It’s nice to see the same people who use “New York” as a slur care so much about real estate dealings in lower Manhattan. Perhaps those people would like to purchase or lease some of the empty buildings in the area, to improve the local economy and contribute something to the area. You know, the way the Park51 folks are.

There’s the matter of Islam, which is a pretty diverse religion. Even some skeptics and atheists are falling into this little trap, in part because we tend to be an American or European bunch, and are not as familiar with Islam as we are with Christianity. Yes, sure, the couple behind Park51 believe in the same religion with the same holy book and the same basic tenets as the people who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But keeping them from opening this place because of the actions of some of their fellow Muslims is like barring Fred Clark and John Loftus from opening up a YMCA near the Centennial Olympic Park. Blaming and discriminating against individual Muslims because of something that different individual Muslims did, because they share a religion (even if their actual beliefs are very dissimilar) is plain old bigotry. It’s no more valid than the idiots who try to tar all atheists with the reputations of Stalin and Pol Pot.

Sure, you could argue that moderate and liberal Muslims legitimize the radicals and conservatives, even if they don’t share the same politics. I make the same argument regarding Christians. That’s a reason to argue forcefully against the beliefs and tenets of Islam, and to not give moderates and liberals a free pass for being less crazy than the radicals; what it’s not is a reason to discriminate against them on the basis of their religion. I’ll argue against Barry Lynn about religion if it’s appropriate, but I’m not going to tell him he can’t open up his own business because some other Christian killed people nearby once. That’s unfair, unreasonable, and un-American.

There are people who see this as a potential rallying point for the same kinds of radical Muslims who conducted the attacks in the first place. I fail to see the relevance. First, I think the radicals would be just as scornful of the westernized liberal folks behind Park51 as they are against the rest of us western infidels–potentially moreso, because they’re defying conservative Islam while still professing to be Muslims. You see the same in Christian circles; liberal Christians and Catholics and so forth are fallen backsliders and false prophets, pretending to preach the faith while actually doing the Devil’s work or overly concerning themselves with “this world.” But let’s say that Osama calls up the next meeting of al-Qaeda and says “Oh, right, a new Muslim community center went up near the place where the Twin Towers fell. So our conquest of the West proceeds apace; next, we’ll be looking into getting Quran verses on the bottom of In-N-Out Burger cups.” Who gives a damn? I would think the bigger victory would be that they blew up the damn World Trade Center, and that we still haven’t fixed it. The victory would be that the people of the Great Satan have revealed their anti-Muslim bias by trying to make Muslims into second-class citizens and loudly proclaiming the infidel Christian basis of their nation and laws and motivations. I hardly think that treating Muslims like everyone else could look bad for us.

I can’t even get behind the idea of a ban as an atheist. Yeah, yeah, I’m generally against religion, and I think worship buildings are a general waste of real estate. I think churches and mosques and temples ought to be taxed unless they can show a clear benefit to society, the same way that other non-profit organizations do. But looking at the actual plans for this building, I think it would easily meet those criteria: it’s a community center dedicated to the arts, classes, and fitness, with a prayer room for Muslims. I wonder if the nearby St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church has so much as a stationary bike, let alone a swimming pool. I’m all for religious buildings that actually serve a secular good–I’d prefer they were secular buildings, but I’ll take what I can get–and Park51 looks like just that kind of place.

And so the news cycle turns on another day of this shit, with reporters bothering the President wondering what he thinks about this terrible example of the free market in action. It’s another reason that I could never be President; while Obama has given a measured response couched in Constitutional terms, my response would be more along the lines of “Jesus H. Christ, don’t you people have better things to worry about?”

And the worst part is that they do. There’s still a whole bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the job market is still complete shit, a crowd of Juggalos attacked Tila Tequila, and so on and so forth. But the Republicans are constantly trying to keep people hateful and fearful and distracted and outraged–it’s the only way they can get elected, since they don’t actually do anything–and their drummed-up scandals are like shiny things to the infants of the mainstream media. And the Democrats, being as they have evolved beyond the need for a spine, are happy to oblige and try to engage the idiots and the imbeciles in conversation as if they were saying reasonable, important things. Meanwhile, real concerns go unanswered and real news goes unreported. Because Republicans think Americans are stupid, Democrats think that’s a reasonable position even though they disagree, and Americans will obligingly prove the Republicans right.

So America, please stop being idiots. Let’s all take our collective Adderall and focus on real concerns, rather than letting the right-wing hate machine and the left-wing acquiescence machine distract us with shiny things and butterflies. I promise, we’ll all be better for it. You, me, and New Yorkers who like to swim.

Sincerely,
Tom

I Hate Stereotypes

The only reason this is here is because I couldn't find a good shot of the Stereotypes bowling team from The Simpsons.I really do. I hate that it’s a natural impulse–in fact, a necessity of communication–to lump people together and assign characteristics to those lumps. I hate that stereotypes are almost always based around some kernel of truth, so that a legitimately true statement can be dismissed as “propagating a negative sterotype” or “[insert group here]ism.” But what I hate the most, what really rankles my hackles up, is when people act in ways that reinforce those stereotypes. I hate seeing liberals who are indignant vegan newagers. I hate seeing racist homophobic Republican NRA members driving rusty pickup trucks with Confederate Flags on the back. I hate seeing disgustingly socially inept nerds like these assholes. I hate hearing Michael Steele talk about things.

Which is why I’m upset by the reaction to Jen McCreight’s Boobquake idea. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Boobquake, for the uninitiated: a Muslim cleric said that women dressing immodestly causes adultery, which in turn causes earthquakes. Jen reasoned that the proper response to this ridiculous (but empirically testable!) claim was to ridicule and empirically test it. So was born Boobquake: a suggestion for women to dress immodestly on a specific day (this coming Monday, April 26th), either causing worldwide earthquakes with their abundant cleavage, or falsifying the cleric’s inane hypothesis. It’s a cute idea, reminiscent of Rebecca Watson’s recent Great Apple Experiment–both taking a ridiculous claim and simultaneously giving it the (lack of) respect it deserves while also taking the opportunity to do some good science and promote skepticism.

The response has been enormous and unexpected. Most of it seems to be pretty positive. Some of it is from the “duhr hurr hurr boobies” wing of society, and some of it seems to miss the point entirely. But then there’s been a particular flavor of response from some self-described feminists talking about just how horrible this whole idea is, because it objectifies women and plays right into the patriarchy’s wishes to see see scantily-clad women. It’s “‘Girls Gone Wild’ with a cause slapped on it,” and “capitulating to Dude Nation’s fondest desire,” and “Since when did we ‘stick it to the man’ by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts?”

This entire post will be dismissed because I used this image.And this is where I have a problem, because I don’t like it when feminists–who I agree with and would generally count myself among–reinforce the Limbaughian stereotype that they’re sex-negative humorless man-hating bluenoses. And yet, here we are.

I see two big problems with the reasoning of this position. First, there seems to be an assumption that there’s one “the man” or one “patriarchy” to fight against. I can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance which must occur to be able to hold that assumption in light of this situation. Here we have an explicit rebellion against the misogynistic rules of patriarchal fundamentalist Islam, which force women to dress in a way that hides any hint of their sexuality. Of course, in order to defy those rules, one would have to dress in a way that doesn’t hide a woman’s sexuality, and coincidentally there’s a closer-to-home patriarchy that marginalizes women for not flaunting their bodies (also, for flaunting their bodies too much–we have a very picky patriarchy). I’d think that this is clear evidence of (at least) two distinct patriarchies with different ways of marginalizing women and different sexual values, but apparently we’re all one Clan of the Dangling Penis. Even when you fight against them, you’re working for them.

The second big problem is an apparent inability to understand the difference between choice and coercion. I won’t deny that our society rewards women who fall within a certain range of body types and who dress in such a way as to walk a fine line of sexual objectification, largely ignoring those who fail to fit or comply. It’d be silly to deny that. But there’s a missing step between “society objectifies women by forcing them to dress provocatively” and “women who dress provocatively are being forced to do so by society.” To make the claim–implicitly or explicitly–ignores the fact that women have agency. A woman can choose how she dresses, regardless of what society expects of her. Women are, in fact, capable of choosing to dress provocatively, and may even be capable of doing so for reasons other than gaining male attention. When one is forced to do something, regardless of what that thing is, it breeds resentment and foments a rebellious attitude. When one chooses to do something–even if it is the same thing–there’s no reason to resent or rebel. Who would you rebel against? Yourself?

When I was a child, I was often forced to take naps. I did not enjoy it, I didn’t want to do it, and I faked sleep or read surreptitiously or did other things besides napping. Now, I frequently take naps by choice–am I therefore playing into the hands of the parents and teachers who wished me to take naps in the past? I have had jobs in the recent past where I was required to wear a tie every day. While I liked my array of ties, it was time-consuming to put them on and restricting to have them on all day, every day. The dress code at my current job is more relaxed; I still wear ties, but only when I choose to do so–and I do it because I like my ties, and I like the way they complement my shirts. I’m not vindicating my old bosses every time I spend a minute or two on a Full Windsor knot, I’m exercising control of my wardrobe through personal choice.

I quoted a bit from a Salon article above, and I’d like to examine the full quote in more detail, because I think it’s emblematic of the whole problem:

Since when did we “stick it to the man” by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts? When women burned bras back in the day, there was a statement there, full of boldness and righteous anger. This type of happening feels like feminism lite, “cute” feminism or “male-friendly” feminism.

I like that she follows up her “we never protested by flaunting sexuality” clause with the example of burning bras (which, strangely enough, apparently never happened). Sure, bras represented the uncomfortable yoke of male expectations and enforced femininity, but is she really suggesting that there weren’t any men at the time who would have supported the idea of women without bras? I wasn’t around for those protests–but apparently, neither was Beth Mann–but I have a hard time imagining a world where no man enjoyed seeing nipples through shirts.

But again, we run into the problem of “the man.” I don’t know, if your point is to “stick it to the man,” doesn’t that depend on what “the man” wants you to do? Like, going braless was a response to “the man” enforcing certain standards of femininity (like wearing bras, and fake lashes, and makeup, and so forth). If “the man” wants you to hide your femininity under a veil and a burqa, are you still going to throw away your bra and makeup? Would that really make any sense?

The point of the protests in either case would be against the enforced standards of femininity. In one case, those standards included wearing bras and makeup, so women went braless and threw their makeup away. In the other case, the standard is extreme modesty, so wouldn’t the equivalent protest to be to throw away the burqa and veil and dress immodestly?

Finally, there’s the pejorative of “‘male-friendly’ feminism.” Yes, heaven forbid and saints preserve, the last thing any feminist should want is to be male-friendly! Why, that might make men think they could support women’s rights and feminist causes without being derided or denigrated, that they could participate in rallies and marches without others saying that they’re just there to gawk and pick up chicks, that they could call themselves feminists without worrying that they might be using the term presumptuously. Certainly, feminists would have no use for male allies–why, they’re the patriarchy, and clearly they’re all equally part of the problem, and it’s no sense being friendly to any of them so that you might actually get them to see how they might even unconsciously contribute to oppression. No, the feminists have gotten so far by being branded “man-haters,” and that term certainly isn’t ever used to dismiss what they have to say, so they should wear it with pride and continue to practice a staunch policy of borderline misandry.

I guess this is what it boils down to for me: On one hand, there’s Jen, a Ph.D. student who is responding to misogynistic religious mores by suggesting that women choose to dress immodestly for the sake of an actual scientific experiment. On the other hand, there are women who call Jen a bad feminist because her flippant academic suggestion means women will expose their femininity, which might cause men to think dirty thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d say the real feminist cause isn’t the one that encourages women to refrain from doing things because of what men think.

Then again, what do I know? I’m part of the problem.

A Manifesto

I am a skeptic. This is because skepticism is what I do, it’s the tool set I use to evaluate reality. My default position in regard to any claim is disbelief and the provisional acceptance of the null hypothesis, a position which can be revised based on quality evidence (or, in the case of subjective issues, sound arguments). I use this basic approach to most aspects of my life, from science to politics to ethics.

I am a scientific skeptic. This is because science is my passion, and centuries of progress and improving knowledge have demonstrated that science is the most reliable method we have of learning true things about reality.

I am an atheist. This is a position I hold regarding belief in gods. Disbelief is the default position, and so far I have seen no evidence to overturn the null hypothesis for any but the most trivial definitions of “god.” Consequently, I lack belief in gods.

I am a “strong atheist” or “antitheist” regarding some definitions of god. In short, for some gods, I am willing to make the claim that those gods do not exist. I feel that this claim is justified (depending on the god claim) by specific evidence against those gods’ existence or lack of evidence when evidence would be expected. I do not hold this (or any position) with absolute certainty, and I am willing to revise it based on new evidence.

I am a materialist. I reject the supernatural, mostly on the basis of the null hypothesis and Occam’s Razor. I see no reason to invent a category of “things that exist but do not interact with reality”–as far as I’m concerned, “interacting with reality” is a major component of the definition of “exist.” I am willing to revise this position, but I suspect that any phenomenon currently described as “supernatural” were actually discovered, it would have to be incorporated into the natural universe. So far, though, I have yet to hear of any supposedly supernatural phenomenon which was not easily explained by natural causes.

I am an advocate of open, vocal, harsh criticism of just about everything. I don’t think organizations or people or claims or ideas should get any kind of free pass or special kid-glove treatment by virtue of their prestige or popularity or other such considerations. I would like to see a society where people expected their claims, beliefs, and actions to receive widespread reasoned criticism, and didn’t find such a thing impolite or inappropriate or unconventional. I certainly think one should pick his or her battles wisely, but I also think people shouldn’t be thin-skinned scrota when challenged on their bullshit.

I suppose I am a member of the “skeptical movement.” I am a skeptic, I’m a blogger and apparently a public speaker, and I’m actively involved in some skeptical outreach events. I started blogging here because I wanted to talk about politics and religion; I found blogs by like-minded people who I enjoyed reading, and we formed a moderate little online community. I didn’t join any big skeptical organizations until fairly recently in this game, and I certainly haven’t agreed to make anyone into an authority over my conduct or content here. Any “movement” I’m part of is the emergent property of a large number of different people working with some similar methods towards some similar goals. It’s nice, and I hope it grows, but I have a hard time accepting it as some sort of monolithic, unified thing that can be harmed by differences in opinion over tact and tactics among its members. If being part of the movement means omitting certain topics from my skeptical purview, focusing my efforts on one subject, eliminating useful or entertaining methods from my arsenal, or treating certain groups of people with vaguely dishonest condescension out of fear of hurting or alienating them, then I’ll move on my own, thanks.

I am, I’m sure, often wrong, often stubborn, often overly verbose, and often an asshole. And I am dead tired of arguing against other skeptics over what they think I should and shouldn’t do for the good of the group.

I am going to continue doing this, writing about whatever I feel like, and doing it all from a skeptical, scientific point of view, until I decide otherwise. If you don’t like it, the little red X is in the corner.

Just a quick rant

I’ve got some posts percolating, but I need a moment to vent about something that’s been bugging me recently. I can’t really remember the last time I actually had a decent online argument with a believer of one form or another. I’ve had one or two exchanges that looked promising, and some that went around in frustrating circles, but mostly my recent arguments have been with other skeptics.

And it’s getting tiresome.

It’d be different if there were some other topic, but it’s always the same damn point: outspoken atheists are hurting the skeptical cause/making skeptics look bad/tearing the skeptical movement apart/overstepping the bounds of science and skepticism.

Suffice it to say, I disagree. But in my disagreement, I’m not chastising other skeptics for being too soft on religion. I’m not telling other skeptics that I think the future of skepticism lies in hardcore affirmative atheism. I’m not crafting bizarre strawmen about how accomodationist skeptics want to kick out all the outspoken atheists so they can purify the party. I’m not trying to redefine science to say that it must weigh in negatively on all god hypotheses. I’m not attaching “-gate” to every minor disagreement on message boards or blogs or Twitter. I’m not suggesting that the only way to combat woo is through ridicule and derision. I’m not arrogantly asserting that my way of approaching skepticism and atheism is the right way or the only way–or even that there is some single better way–to do so. And I’m certainly not telling other people in the movement that they’re going to tear the movement apart by being insufficiently outspoken about their godlessness.

See, I can disagree without thinking that everyone else should share my opinion or methods. Why the hell does this seem to be such a rare position?

Look, skeptics come from a bunch of different backgrounds. We have a bunch of different beliefs and personalities and philosophies. We ought to embrace that, not try to shove everyone into one pigeonhole or another. And the last thing we should do is set aside the beliefs or ideas of one group of people as beyond the reach of critical questioning, whether for reasons of politisse or apparent impossibility. I think we should be as willing to question Hal Bidlack’s faith as we are Penn Jillette’s climate change “agnosticism” or Bill Maher’s anti-medicine stance or Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. In fact, I’d say that most aspects of libertarianism (and politics in general) are much farther outside the range of science than, say, religious belief or assertion of a deity’s existence, and yet I think we should apply the same skeptical approach to it as we would to any other worldview.

But other people disagree, and that’s okay. Just don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong because my priorities and philosophies differ from yours. Don’t tell me that science and skepticism have some magical invisible boundaries that you’ve dreamed up (and that the vast majority of scientists and skeptics would disagree with). Don’t tell me that certain methods–such as ridicule, parody, and the occasional angry rant–are counterproductive when those methods are among the most visible and popular (even outside the movement). Don’t tell me that I’m tearing apart the movement when my philosophy is “everyone should be able to do their own thing, but nothing should be exempt from questioning.” Don’t tell me–in any variation of terms or degree of subtlety–that your way is the one right way to do things.

And if you want to tell me any of those things, then I’ve got one demand: present the data, or shut the fuck up. Because the one thing I haven’t seen from any of these self-proclaimed etiquette cops and method masters is evidence. Strange that people who want to define skepticism and set the stage for the next phases of the movement would omit such a key component of any skeptical argument.

Skeptical Current Events

Despite my absence from blogging lately, big happenings are…happening in the skeptical world. Here’s a brief run-down of some of them:


First, my good friend Akusai of the Action Skeptics will be appearing on Skeptically Speaking this Friday next Friday, March 5th, at 8 PM EST to talk about the Skeptic Symposium we’re doing at Gen Con this year. Give it a listen; I certainly will!


Did I mention the Skeptic Symposium at Gen Con? Because it finna be off the chain, yo! Akusai, Magus, myself, Jon Maxson, and various other skeptical folks will be gathering together for a variety of presentations, talks, and events, including an awesome vaccine fundraiser. Akusai has done all the heavy lifting to get this whole shebang together, while I’ve slacked off so much that I can’t even return e-mails to important organizations in a timely fashion, so make sure to give him oodles of kudos for his efforts while I ride his coattails to skeptical stardom.


Speaking of me riding coattails, Akusai has also been working on Skepchicamp, a Chicago-based event featuring presentations by some of the biggest names in the Skeptosphere, including Akusai, Bug Girl, various Skepchicks and Hemant Mehta! Also, I’ll be there to talk about something or other, but you can skip that bit if you want. Heck, I might even skip it, depending on how long the book-signing line around Hemant is, so I can’t blame you. In any case, you know you want to come, so get your ticket and show up at the Brehon Pub in Chicago on March 6th (next Saturday) from Noon to 10 PM CST.


In other news, the forums over at RichardDawkins.net have shut down amidst a great deal of drama. I first learned of this from Peter Harrison, a former moderator on the blog who provided an in-depth look into the ugly politics and dirty dealings surrounding the whole event. He presents a level-headed account backed up with direct quotes from people involved, and it doesn’t look good for the administration team at the Dawkins site.

Which is why I was so puzzled when PZ wrote a post about it, saying he didn’t want to get involved, and making a series of irrelevant points that displayed either an ignorance of the complaints (despite linking to the Peter Harrison post) or an amazing strawman of the complainants. The situation was exacerbated when Dawkins himself did much the same thing, painting all the disgruntled commenters with the violently colorful and abusive language of a few, and citing those over-the-top comments as justification for the forum’s closing when, in fact, the comments came from a different forum after the RD.net forums had been closed and mangled.

I didn’t have a horse in this race, really. I haven’t ever been a regular visitor to those forums. If I’d heard about the situation from PZ first, I likely would have just rolled my eyes regarding another overreaction by peoples on the Internet to trivial wrongs. But reading the Harrison account gave me a different perspective, and (as I mentioned in the Pharyngula comments) made me want to find out both sides of the story.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. See, apparently in shutting down posting on the RD.net forums, the admins deleted several users, thousands of posts, and at least one thread critical of the coming changes. So, as much as I would have liked to have seen if the critical threads on the RD.net forums were as abusive as they supposedly were, I couldn’t. The evidence had been destroyed, which further confirmed at least part of the Harrison account.

This made me realize something important: nothing will cause me to distrust a person or organization faster than seeing them hide or destroy relevant evidence. The moderators and posters who have since flocked to boards like Rationalia may have all been overreacting potty-mouthed nutcases, whose abusive behavior led to the premature locking of the board, but without the offending thread, no one but the admins has any way of knowing that. Given the dearth of evidence to support what little explanation or argument has been put forth by the admin side, and actions like destroying evidence that at least seem quite dishonest and do nothing to promote trust or the appearance of trustworthiness, it seems to me that the only justified position would be to accept the moderators’ account of the events. Which, again, reflects rather poorly on the administration.

Ultimately, yes, this is a trivial thing, but it’s a microcosm for similar behaviors and situations outside of the Internet. If we’re being good skeptics, then our natural drive should be to doubt any story regarding events, examine the evidence, and draw our own conclusions about whom to believe. Consequently, destroying evidence–even (or perhaps especially) if that evidence is of hateful comments and angry dissent–should be anathema to the skeptic. If anything should be sacrosanct to skeptics, it should be evidence.

So when a major voice in the skeptical movement engages in apparent quote-mining and at least apparently suborns the destruction of evidence, it really casts them in a negative light, more than most things they could do (kind of like when they fail to quickly or adequately respond to a pseudoscientific buffoon being given a science award in their name).

This should be an object lesson in skeptical advocacy, especially in the Internet age. Skeptical blogs shouldn’t be afraid to allow negative and dissenting comments, and skeptics should be aware that allowing idiots and assholes to speak for themselves ultimately shows them to be idiots and assholes to any reasonable person. We often talk about how debates aren’t for the people involved so much as they are for the audience, and this is true even when it’s not actually a debate. Silencing critics, banning dissidents, and throwing evidence down the memory hole is what they do on Age of Autism and Uncommon Descent and Natural News. It should not be standard practice on any site that values reason, evidence, science, and skepticism.


Finally, for tonight, I stumbled on a post at an apparently recent addition to the ScienceBlogs community, Universe. I’ll admit that the blogs I follow on Sb are relatively limited; I rarely venture outside of Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Sure, I hit up ERV occasionally, and I’ve recently become a fan of Tomorrow’s Table, but I don’t usually tool around the Seed Media conglomerate looking for new hangouts.

But I followed a sidebar link to a post called “No Skepticism Policy” that was about the last thing I would expect to find on the media group which plays home to so many skeptical and scientific voices. It’s ignorant in the purest sense, in that I don’t think there’s a lot of malice involved, just a general unawareness of what the skeptical movement is about (and a lack of desire to find out) and what the harm is, coupled with a willingness to smear an entire intellectual movement with the same Doggerel we hear from every quack with a blog and a degree in pomposity. I posted a comment in response to the post, but it hasn’t made its way out of moderation yet. I’m reproducing the comment below because I’m kind of proud of it, and I think it underscores something that even budding skeptics often forget: that debunking is the first step, not the last. Enjoy!

I can’t recall which skeptical luminary said it (I’ve heard it repeated several times, however), but the point of good skepticism shouldn’t be just “debunking,” and good skeptics understand this. Debunking is a necessary step, however; it clears out the garbage so that something better can be built. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t people in the movement who forget this essential second step, but to broadly paint all skeptics with the “just debunking,” “you just want to tear things down” canard is ludicrous and ignorant. Go to any of the major skeptical sites, shows, or podcasts, and what you’ll find is exactly what the advice I started out suggests: debunking presented alongside or as an introduction to quality education and enthusiasm about reality and good science. For instance, the UFO video you present was also “debunked” by Captain Disillusion, who discussed the same point as the video above while also demonstrating just how impressive the CGI artistry was, providing an object lesson in how knee-jerk skepticism can be just as wrong as blind belief, and being damned entertaining.

And you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the same thing on any skeptical site, forum, or outlet, whether it’s Brian Dunning’s concise explanations of real science or the Novella brothers’ infectious enthusiasm about birds and nanotechnology and solar power or PZ Myers’s pictures of beautiful aquatic fauna or Orac’s Tales of the Hitler Zombie, I propose you’d have to do a pretty thorough search of the skeptical movement before you found any major voices who were just “debunkers.” Those who are, I suspect, are much like the author of the video you cited: uninteresting. There wouldn’t be a skeptical movement if it were just about “debunking.” I have a hard time imagining anyone buying a book or attending a convention or booking a cruise to hear nothing but people lambasting pseudoscience.

It’s all well and good to “believe in good science,” but the layperson cares as much about that as she does about UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system. The goal of good skepticism–and the practice of each and every popular skeptic–is to correct that latter problem, by being unashamed promoters of reality and hoping that their enthusiasm will infect others.