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.

Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.

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.

Oh, Uncle Richard

Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson made a joint statement denouncing and decrying the harassment and other bad behavior in the atheist movement.

This is a good thing. It’s good because after “Dear Muslima,” after all the asinine things Dawkins has said on Twitter and elsewhere, the dedicated antifeminist harassers have taken his comments as a sign of his tacit approval of misogyny and harassment. For him to join forces with one of the prime targets of antifeminist, anti-“FTBullies” abuse, sends an important, necessary message. All the kudos to Ophelia Benson for pursuing this, and kudos to Dawkins for recognizing that this is an important issue that required his comment and clarification.

But.

But “Dear Muslima” was three years ago, three years of non-stop abuse directed at atheist feminists, in many cases by Dawkins fanboys, in many cases by people who believed Dawkins was unambiguously on their side. It’s impossible to see this statement and not wonder why it didn’t come a lot earlier.

But Ophelia Benson had to reach out to Dawkins and apparently hold his feet to the fire a bit1 in order to get the statement made at all. This statement would hold a much greater amount of power if Dawkins had initiated it. As it is, it’s far to easy for the naysayers and harassers to say that Dawkins was bullied into this, that he’s doing it reluctantly.

But Ophelia Benson is the person who made the statement with Dawkins, and while she’s certainly been on the receiving end of tons of abuse, imagine how much more impact this would have had if Dawkins had made a joint statement with Rebecca Watson. Imagine if he had apologized for that, had expressed horror specifically at how his ill-conceived and fallacious attack had painted a target on Watson’s back. Imagine if he had finally put to rest the claims of blackballing2 and unambiguously supported Watson’s presence in the community. You’ll have to imagine, because obviously that didn’t happen.

But the statement, while clear, is still open to the same reinterpretation and spin that we saw back in the “don’t be a dick” debacle, that we see any time harassment policies arise. People who are motivated to be assholes will use motivated reasoning to justify continued assholery. Some already are dismissing this statement as Dawkins being duped, others undoubtedly will argue that what they’re doing isn’t bullying or harassment, but criticism and satire; that the FTBullies use terms that could be called “vulgar epithets” and they’re bullies (it’s right there in the name!) so it’s okay, or so Dawkins was really, slyly, calling out the FTBullies themselves and Benson was just too dumb to see it. We can reasonably guess this will happen because it’s what they’ve been saying for years now. Tu quoque and false equivalence are the air and water of the pro-harassment crowd.

But, and perhaps this is the most significant but, it doesn’t seem like Dawkins has actually learned anything. There is no admission of error in the joint statement, no acknowledgement of the seriously problematic things Dawkins has said about race or Islam or rape or molestation or abortion. And then, the very same week, he goes back to the “Dear Muslima” well, the “mild paedophilia” well, of trying to rank horrible tragedies as if their harmfulness could be measured with an SI unit, as if any positive purpose could be served by doing so, as if drawing a distinction between extremes weren’t a common tactic used to dismiss things like “mild paedophilia” and date rape. This blunder makes it unfortunately clear that Dawkins hasn’t internalized any of this, hasn’t realized that the reason people see him as an ally in their racism and misogyny and anti-Arab bigotry isn’t just because of one bonehead comment to Rebecca Watson three years ago, but because of a larger pattern of statements and behavior.

So it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a symbolic gesture. It’s a good symbolic gesture, a necessary symbolic gesture, but it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t come sooner, with a different motivation, with a clearer message, and with an indication that it represented real reflection and substantive change. Hopefully it’s a first step, and not a destination.


1. Ophelia Benson noted in the comments below that Dawkins needed convincing, not pressure, so I have corrected the account.

2. This is not to suggest that the claims of blackballing are incorrect, merely that I haven’t seen Dawkins confirm or deny them, and whether or not they have been true, denying them now would be valuable.

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.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.

What’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.