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Sunday, September 16, 2012

This Blog Has Moved!

Hi all, I have packed up my Blogger office and moved over to WordPress. Come visit me there!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Natalie Reed and Why We Fight

Yesterday, Natalie Reed brought to an issue that needs to make every single person, in the atheist movement or otherwise, take a massive fucking reality check.

She related that, following the expulsion of the blogger Thunderf00t from Freethought Blogs after he used the platform to slander the organization and generally make a gigantic, heaving, shit-spewing ass out of himself, that after being removed from the system, he hacked back into the private channels and  managed to acquire incredibly private details about her, including the name she goes by in real life, that if released would damage her life in irreparable ways. That name, were it to get out, would put her in very real danger and probably destroy her life, which isn't, by her account, fairies and butterflies in the first place.

Go back and read her post. All of it. I cannot even imagine how she managed to write it. But she did, and it is a brilliant, brilliant essay.

I have tried, over this summer, to bring into light, directly to the atheist community through talks at the Center for Inquiry, the Secular Student Alliance, and on Dispatches for the Culture Wars that we cannot keep talking about just hard science and skepticism, that if we are to be taken seriously as a movement, we have to engage with social justice issues, and political issues deeper than the usual 24/7 news cycle bullshit. I don't necessarily know if I convinced anyone in any of those places; most of the comments I have received, at least those that aren't positives from people I know personally, are pedants who got pissed off that I quoted one snarky comment about Pharyngula's commenters, or apologists for colorblind racism, and while the former is just petty, the latter is an active, serious concern of mine.

However, regardless of what you personally think of me, my views, or how I presented them in the public sphere, you need to sit down and understand what exactly has happened here. Thunderfoot, a blogger with a well-documented streak of immaturity and resulting vengeful feelings, has the capability to ruin a woman's life. In a private conversation on Facebook, this was related:

"even if this entire situation was completely reversed. If Natalie had been arguing against harassment policies and writing stupid fucking blogs with bad grammar, this would be unacceptable. This isn't just the damn internet anymore. This is the rest of her life."

Were the context above realized, even then, the situation would be, in my mind, barely comparable. Were Thunderfoot the target of such a happening, the difference is that in no way, as a white male living in America would he be in any danger of having his life end with the release of his real name. Natalie Reed does not have that privilege. She is a trans woman living in the circumstances of lower class environments, a recovering heroin addict, a multiple rape survivor, and someone who has been operating under the presumption of anonymity. She occupies a place in our society that is ripe for demonization and violence from all sides. Having her "real name" connected by a wider populace to her pseudonym would be a guarantor that her physical safety would be in severe threat. In addition to physical violence, having her transition status known is grounds to be barred access to housing and employment nearly everywhere, and trans women face an appalling rate of violence and rape, far in excess proportionally to the rest of the queer population.

In short, this is not a fucking laughing matter. Differently to most bigots I call out in my daily life, Thunderfoot doesn't seem to be an out-and-out transphobe. He does seem to be an out-and-out misogynist, as noted by his frequent attacks on the members of Skepchick, Surly Amy in particular, and Greta Christina. However, there's no indication he's doing a radfem and actively seeking to out Natalie; he seems to be doing all of the information-stealing because he thinks it's funny, or out of some grand, nine-year-old-boy caliber tantrum against PZ Myers. The thing is, which he is clearly too arrogant or ignorant (or both) to realize, is that this is not anything that any decent or rational person, the latter of which he probably identifies as being, would do for a giggle. Rational people do not put others at risk for the sake of their personal vendettas, especially those taking place on the fucking internet. He has crossed the line in an exorbitant, unforgivable way.

So, to Thunderfoot, I say to you: crawl back into whatever toxic fucking waste dump you crawled out of. And take it from a 21 year old, act your goddamned age. Because I know six year olds who handle themselves with more dignity and respect than you. You are a poison, a cancer on the name atheist, and no rational thinker in the world would side with you now.

So, I direct myself to those of you who I know who have defended Thunderfoot to me, citing his creationism videos and whatnot: I. Don't. Care. You no longer have a leg to stand on in this matter. This isn't Richard Dawkins showering a comments section with his privilege; this is a toddler in grownups' clothing acting out so he'll get a fucking lollipop, and putting people at serious risk in the process. It is inexcusable, and you cannot rationally argue against that.

To Natalie: though I do understand, little as I am able to, I am very sorry to hear you won't be blogging so directly about issues relating to atheism anymore, but I am so, so very happy to know you'll be carrying on with your work on trans-feminism and other issues. You are the blogger I look forward to reading most of any at FTB, and everything you write makes me think in ways I haven't before. I don't think I can pay any higher compliment than that. I will read you until the day you decide to stop, and then reread your pieces over and over again afterwards. Your writing means a lot to many, many people out there, and I just want to reiterate that.

To the rest of you: I, along with Kate, Cassy, Miriam, Chana, Brendan, Terry, and doubtlessly many more atheists around the globe, want to challenge you to live up to be the kind of activists that Natalie described towards the end of her piece:

"If you believe in this movement, if you believe it’s worth fighting for, if you believe it can be fixed, if you believe I’m wrong… good. You really do have all my support. If this is what you care about and you think it can be done and is worth the fight, by all means, don’t let a single thing I’ve said get in the way of that. I hope you win. And I hope you make things better for people along the way."

We can be those people. We can stand up to others who want to drag this movement into the dirt in the name of their deranged, regressive agendas. We can be the kind of people who are looked to as powerful, staunch allies in the worldwide fight against oppressions of all sorts, to let our natural allies know that the godless have their backs, that we are not going to stand for thugs like Thunderfoot in our ranks.

Do not sit back right now, shake your head ruefully, and mutter what a shame it is that Thunderfoots exist. Raise your voices and fight back. That's the only way we are going to make the world a place we want to live in.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Because I Am an Atheist

For the past few months, Ian Cromwell, one of my absolute favorite bloggers on the planet, began a series entitled "Because I am an Atheist," in which he discussed how atheism works in his life and asked readers to contribute their own narratives. This is my entry in that series.

Because I am an atheist, I became a good person.

What do I mean by "good" person? I mean that I became not just aware of, but deeply concerned with issues of the world around me.

See, when I was eleven years old, I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The resulting two surgeries and course of radiation treatment meant that I was more or less incapable of "normal" social interaction for many years. I was drugged to the eyeballs, dealing with the near-total loss of pituitary function, and always, always exhausted. I wasn't socialized much at all, to the point where I couldn't do basic things like determine appropriate comments from inappropriate ones, and etc. I was not a particularly pleasant person to be around for those years.

I dealt with this as well as I could, namely by spending most of my time in my room reading, listening to music, and watching movies. I went through all those lists of classics, cult classics, best-100-whatevers, devouring everything and anything I could. Quadrophenia was my number one soundtrack through this time. I wanted, whether I recognized it at the time or not, to just shove as much knowledge and stimulus into my brain as possible to stop it from thinking about the fact that I was miserable. It was all very High Fidelity, but without girls.

It was at this time that my older brother handed me Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, shortly after I had finished reading A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It was, for my newly politically-awakened mind, the perfect followup. Though I now spend a lot of time yelling at Sam Harris, those 100-some odd pages were and still are a huge wake up call.

I started identifying as an atheist a very short time afterwards. With that came not just the usual God is not Great talking points, but a merging with politics; I've never really been able to distinguish between the two.

Come college time, the first thing I wanted to do was start an atheist group. This process, which resulted in the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, has since introduced me to the vast majority of people who are important in my life right now. My beautiful partner, my editor at In Our Words, my best friends, my drinking buddies, partners in crime, acquaintances who I know on Facebook that post even more articles for me to devour and yell about, all of them came about because I am an atheist. Without my atheism, I might not have engaged with feminist ideas, with gender issues, with racism as an actual systemic problem and not just something that would go away if we all forgot about it. My atheism has made me all of these things.

My atheism has implored me to act in this world, to make it better. Not to sit in a pew and hope really really hard for something to happen, or to hide away from the world like I used to, but to be an actor, a force for change, and hopefully someone who might inspire others to make their own world change. Without atheism, I would not be the person I am, in pretty much every conceivable way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Response from the Good Mayor


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for In Our Words on Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, who I have always thought was a real class act, something that is hard to find amongst American politicians today. I still do think that, despite his statements on Bain Capital, but the mystique of him, and indeed of most American politicians, has been swept away for me; a downgrading from Superman to Clark Kent, if you will. So, imagine my surprise when, at work the day the piece went up, I began receiving direct messages on Twitter from the Mayor, who responded thusly. This is completely unedited, compiled from 20+ messages.

"Read your piece. I am indeed just Clark Kent. I in artfully tried to express my disdain for negative politics and it came out horribly. But I hope you watched the whole MTP episode or my appearance later that week, my appearance on Rachel Maddow where I made the exact same points that you did. Indeed, when Romney claims to be a job creator that record deserves to be examined. And I said, it is absurd to equate some of the scurrilous even bigoted attacks on Obama with the negative add that MTP showed. So, in my yet another of 100s of public appearances I screwed up. . . as I said in my Leno appearance this week, I tried to strike out against polarizing/combustable politics and ended up being quite combustable myself. So, I am Clark (actually he is kind of heroic himself I loved the movie where he lost his powers but was still brave, courageous and heroic so perhaps I am not even Clark Kent). But that all said, I reject your conclusions about dash for cash wall street buying politicians. As even my own cynical state newspaper pointed out, my fundraising base is wide and diverse. From unions to wall street, from lawyers to non profit leaders. I've taken stands against a tax code that is imbalanced, loop holes that even my hedge fund friends can't defend like carried interest. I've never made my political decisions based on campaign contributions. In fact, I've tested the theory that if I boldly & authentically pursue my ideals then more people would believe in me and I could raise more money. As soon as I began to compromise then I would lose not only my appeal but I'd lose myself. So when I speak out against broad brushed attacks on private equity, I do it because I see what the access to capital can do to help communities like mine. We are going through our biggest economic development period with over a billion dollars worth of new job creating projects - some of those made possible by those so called "scurrilous" wall street types. This doesn't mean that they are all good or bad, it doesn't mean that they there isn't a need for more reform in that sector, and it doesn't mean that we seriously need to address the culture of capitalism, consumerism, and greed in our country. What it means is that I believe we need a much less polarizing andmuch more nuanced way of discussing our problems. That simplistic broad brushed attacks don't solve our problems. That unless we can find ways of bringing people together to discuss our complicated problems we may never solve them. So, I stand by my expressions from my heart. I didn't do a good enough job expressing them with my head. But I did show clearly in the totality of MTP that I support my president I support him because he's that kind of leader, I support him because he is a uniter, because he has the best vision for bringing our nationforward, because his ideas, plans, and record speak to great hope for America. And finally, I support him because while I am not Supermanor even a good Clark Kent . . . Obama is and will be in his 2nd term a pretty heroic President. So Up, Up and Away America - together our best days are ahead of us, I still believe our nation can and will soar."

Frankly, particularly after my recent experience with comment sections on FreethoughtBlogs, this is about as superb a response as I could ever have hoped for. Mayor Booker picked up on the points I made, namely that my faith had been shaken in him, and addressed them in full.

I suppose, after this, I would change my message to be not so much one of disdain for him, which I believe may have been the unfortunate tone of my first article, but one of mild disappointment not so much in him but in how deeply flawed the system we live in today is. As Mayor Booker notes, however evil the company behind it, having access to capital in developing communities is an essential aspect to the current regeneration of many American cities, including Newark, and frankly, even my deeply cynical self finds it hard to argue with what Booker has done for that city, corporate money backing him or otherwise. Sure, I'd rather that money was available from less awful sources, or that our federal government would actually care about domestic issues like infrastructure and regeneration rather than building bigger bombs for more sophisticated robots to drop on innocent people in Pakistan, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn't.

Given that issue, of the military-industrial complex's chokehold on America, I don't know if I share Mayor Booker's faith in President Obama, but he has managed to dissipate some of my doom and gloom attitude. I think, with this response, Mayor Booker proved that he knows what's up, but at the same time, he seems to have managed to avoid the trap door of corruption and awfulness that awaits most optimistic, change-minded politicians.

Turns out, Clark Kent's pretty all right after all.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Further Points on Reductionism

So, following my post on privilege that went up over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, the major sticking point for most critics, at least those who aren't pissed that I included a very slight jibe at the Pharyngula comments section, has been the assertion of myself and Dan Fincke that reductionism as a viewpoint is in large part responsible for the inability of many atheists to see beyond science, separation of church of state, having "In God We Trust" on the money, and other such "typical" secular issues, and adopt anti-racist, anti-sexist, queer positive viewpoints that would help the movement grow and actually make it relevant to groups outside of white male academics. Most of these responses, particularly the one of Mike Mei, the former treasurer of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago, have been massive exercises in missing the point.

For instance, Mr. Mei seems to hold the belief that at some point that I said reductionism, namely the understanding that everyone and everything is made up of atoms, is a horrible evil viewpoint that causes children to have nightmares. Or something.

I would love, LOVE for him or anyone else to show me where I said that.

To quote again from Dan Fincke (emphasis mine):

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said.

I have highlighted here what I believe to be the most important statements involved in my critique of atheist reductionists. I never said, as Mei seems to insinuate in his first point, that I do not accept reductionism; in fact, while I did not go into it further in the post for Dispatches, I pointed out explicitly in my talks at the Center for Inquiry and Secular Student Alliance conferences that I know it's true we're all atoms. I would be a fool not to believe so; it makes me wonder what kind of a mad postmodernist some people think I am (hint: not).

Mei's second point interests me most of all:

2) Reductionism isn’t a normative claim.Being a reductionist doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t be a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t say if religion is good or bad (although it suggests that most religions are untrue). It doesn’t say anything about how you should or shouldn’t treat other people. So claims about reductionism leading to social ills are in the same approximate category as claims about atheism leading to the Holocaust or claims about Darwinism leading to eugenics.

I would think that Mei would understand by now, being a fellow veteran of many a Facebook rant thread, that invoking anything Nazi-related on the internet is instant disqualification, but I digress. This paragraph is the main area where he Misses The Point.

It is true, as he claims, that nothing about reductionism insinuates a political bias; it does not say anything about racism or ignorance of the issues of marginalized groups or anything overtly. This is the key word here. See, since Civil Rights, the United States has existed in a state of what is termed by sociologists as "color-blind racism;" in essence, it has been well documented, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Ashley Doane amongst others, that at the end of the Civil Rights movement racism became far less overt as things like Jim Crow laws and legal segregation became no more. However, despite what the whitewashers of the world would have you believe (i.e. the people who probably taught your high school history classes, and maybe even your college ones; the richer your school, the more likely, it seems, this is to happen), racism did not die. Instead, it has gone underground, and exists a form we all should know well, namely, the virulent resistance on the behalf of most people to avoid talking about race at all costs, for to talk about it would be to admit that it exists. This happy lie has existed for too long, this notion that ignoring a thing makes it disappear; in racism's case, it has only allowed it to continue.

How does this work with reductionism, then? Well, take that viewpoint and mix it with the sorts of upper-crust white academics who sit at the top of the atheist movement; the sorts of scientists who work directly on things that prove the reductionist assertion; Lawrence Krauss is a particularly good example of this type. While Krauss is undoubtedly a brilliant physicist, the man does not exactly have a background of oppression; he grew up in lovely circumstances and attended Yale. He and Richard Dawkins have no idea of what happens on a daily basis outside their golden-spoon circles. They're not versed in the language or circumstances of institutional oppression against people of color, women, and those of non-conforming genders; for the umpteenth time, I will point to Sikivu Hutchinson's work.

So, they don't know what's up in the real world, in short. What they certainly do know, however, as all of us raised in the color-blind West know, is that race is a social construct. There is nothing biological that makes one race inherently different, or more superior, than another. Its importance is entirely based on social notions. Hence, my claim is that it is not too far a leap to make in order for such people to believe, based on the fact that we're all just atoms, the same old canard that race does not matter in the grand scheme of things. Thus, we have the movement's near-total lack of engagement with issues of race, gender, and institutional violence.

This is what I refer to when I criticize over-the-top reductionism. Not reductionism itself, but the ability of it to intersect with old notions of color-blindness to allow otherwise rational atheists to ignore issues affecting marginalized communities. This is the main crux that Mei missed, and frankly, I understand why, given our nation's propensity to ignore critical race and gender theory entirely as fields worthy of study; after all, were enough people to realize or care enough about the kinds of things I have talked and written about this summer that happen, the rampant violence by the state and others against people based on their race or gender presentation, then something might actually change, and the old guard of capitalist economists might quake a bit.

In short, the basic premise of reductionism is true. That doesn't mean bad things can't be done with it. And for fuck's sake, Internet, lose the straw-manning. It's getting really, really old.

Monday, July 9, 2012

SSA Con was MAGICAL.


So, as ever, the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference was absolutely amazing. I spent the entire thing with amazing people, one of whom in particular made it incredibly special, and the talks were, for the most part, amazing. SB Morgaine in particular gave an a-fucking-mazing talk on ableism and making groups accessible for differently abled people. Greta and Hemant were amazing as well, as was Brendan Murphy, a good friend of mine who talked about mental illness. There was also some tall New Yorker schmuck who talked about social justice.

Speaking of which, I got called a fascist for the first time ever! According to a comment on my post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I'm just like Mussolini, Hitler, the Communists, and the KKK because I think social justice matters. Just throwing that out there in case the lot of you didn't know. Rawr.

Anyways, I probably won't do a full recap of the conference because my brain is fried and I need vacation time, but more regular blogging service shall resume shortly.

Until then, DANCE.


Privilege for Atheists: An Introductory Guide

The following is a post based upon the talk that I gave recently at the Center For Inquiry's Leadership Conference; video/audio is not up yet, but I will be giving another talk with most of this one's content at the Secular Student Alliance's annual conference in just under two weeks' time. In it, I draw upon many sources, notably the work of Lorraine Code, to make a case for greater secular work for social justice.

TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of violence

I'm writing about this today because I think the atheist/skeptic/humanist/insert chosen descriptor here movement is way, way out of touch with the world.

This concept shouldn't be too unfamiliar with any of you who read Ed's blog, or many of the other great voices on FTB; this network has become the awesome place that it is because it is so incredibly diverse, that rather than the echo chamber (or, as Jamie Kilstein put it at the conference, third level of hell) that the Pharyngula comments have become, FTB bloggers may agree on certain issues a lot, but the perspectives are incredibly diverse. It's not just scientists, but it's anti-racist experts like Crommunist, trans* activists like Natalie Reed, sex-positive writers like Greta, and utter badasses like Sikivu Hutchinson who are creating the discourse.

This is not to suggest that science, separation of church and state, or other issues that have traditionally been what the movement has focused on are unimportant. However, in the following post, I want to posit that, ultimately, their privileged status needs to be seriously reexamined in the face of what is actually happening in the real world outside of the communities who care about science over everything else.

Now, it is impossible for me in the space of a 20 minute presentation or a blog post to present the entirety of institutionalized oppression and violence in any way that would properly describe it. So, I'm going to focus on two issues that I think are most prescient to the discussion relating to atheism: reductionism and privilege.

The first I originally did not intend on including in the presentation, at least not under that guise. However, after Dan Fincke outlined it during his Blogathon for SSA Week, I realized that it fit quite well into my framework. He said:

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on whichtrue things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature. It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.

In my thinking, this sort of reductionism is the kind of belief that leads directly to erasure and marginalization, as Dan briefly mentioned. The reductionist mindset allows one to remove the personal from life; when there are only atoms, why should we worry about anything that make them up? Whether or not this attitude is consciously constructed or not, it is the one that prevails currently in many atheistic circles, and what it has resulted in is yet another reinforcement of the old white male-driven hierarchies.

We haven't been looking to break down the old ways of knowing; instead, we have coopted them and slapped a secular label on them. We have been trying to create a permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards by which all knowledge and worth is to be judged; that of science, atomism, whatever we choose to call it. It's the same type of framework that has been used by popes, priests, and dictators for centuries; the enemies of freethought, of rationality, the things we have been supposedly fighting for. By inhabiting this reductionist philosophy, we have never looked outside the box; the framework does not allow, epistemologically, for questions of identity to enter our conception as being a worthy aspect of investigation, for it is such a subjective thing; our conceptions of our and others' being is always in flux, always depending on sense data gained from experience. It resists quantification.

The result of this rejection of identity has been ignorance of the concerns and circumstances of those who do not fit the norm set out by the knowledgeable class who propagate the ways of knowing I have briefly set out; the Dawkinses, Harrises, Krausses, etc., have never to my knowledge ever stopped for a moment to consider the issues and oppressions that their objective mindset, in a way, helps to reinforce; in the former's case, when he did, he ended up only 
revealing his ignorance on such matters.

Frankly, they have no compelling reason to do so. As I will come to below, issues outside of the malestream (to borrow from Lorraine Code) are frightening to those of us within our safe environs. We get worried over whether or not evolution is being taught properly in school; a trans* woman of color has to worry about being killed for being who she is every single day of her life. The majority of you reading this are, I am willing to bet based upon statistics on atheist demographics, like me in appearance; white, male, reasonably well off, probably college educated, have a dependable safe place to live, etc. You do not have to rationally worry about being shot at, or killed, or robbed, or suffer any other such form of violence. This is called privilege.

Allow me a moment to emphasize: 
privilege is not a dirty word. It has often been treated as such by deniers in our movement, but, simply, privilege refers to all of the unearned advantages that a dominant group holds over others. To borrow Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's concept of kyriarchy, we hold many different forms of privilege at the same time, all of which intersect with and reinforce each other; for instance, we certainly live in a patriarchal culture, where the male gender is held in greater esteem above all other gender identities and thus holds greater power because of it. Rather than go into all of the technical aspects of intersectionality and make a long post even longer, I'll point you to Jason Thibeault's excellent post on the subject, as well as one of the classic works on privilege by Peggy McIntosh.

Ultimately, what these privileges do, by giving us power in society, is allow us to live free of oppression and violence. As a white male, I will not be viewed as suspicious by law enforcement; while living in 
one of the most segregated cities in America, I can choose to live in a neighborhood where violence does not happen at a higher rate than it does in Afghanistan. I don't have to worry about being catcalled or harrassed as I simply walk down the street, something that happens to my female-identified friends every single week.  I do not have to worry about such activities leading to being sexually assaulted, as one in four women report happening to them; since that number only includes official reports, the number is most likely far higher. As a cisgendered male, I do not have to worry about being murdered simply for expressing my identity as such, unlike Paige Clay, a trans* woman of color, who was shot in the head in Chicago on April 16th, or Brandy Martell, who was murdered in Oakland on April 29th. Agnes Torres Sulca was tortured and killed March 12, 2012. Deoni Jones was stabbed to death February 4th in DC. Lashai McLean was killed in DC on June 21, 2011. Cece McDonald has been sentenced to prison for defending herself against a group of transphobic attackers, during which she killed one of them, and will most likely be placed in the male section of the prison where she will serve time, and most likely not receive proper medical care during that time.

Those half dozen instances are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the avalanche of attacks on trans* people throughout the world, particularly against transwomen of color. A 
nationwide survey of bias-motivated violence against LGBT people from 1985 to 1998 by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that incidents targeting transgender people accounted for 20% of all murders and about 40% of all police-initiated violence. According to the same project, in 2010 
44 percent of LGBTQH (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected) murder victims were trans women, and in 2009 trans women were 50 percent of murder victims. Yet trans people as a whole are only about 1 percent of the LGBTQH population. Trans women also more often experienced multiple forms of violence and more severe violence, as well as more police bias and violence.
Against all of these happenings, I really cannot get pissed off or self righteous about whether or not it says God on my money or not. When people are being murdered in America at higher rates than those in decades-long war zones, I have a lot of trouble caring about whether we have free will or if it's all determined. 

However, going back to what was said above about intersectionality, that does not mean that I am saying that those issues do not matter. I would rightly be ridiculed if I were to say that proper, rational education of our children did not matter, or that I did not think that our nation should be a secular one, free of the influence of regressive religious institutions. What I am saying here is that if we want to be a movement that is relevant, that is interested in making our country and world more rational, more reasonable, a place where all are equal, then we cannot say things like "atheism isn't involved in social justice" or "our movement is only concerned with THESE issues; we should leave the others to the feminists/queers/socialists." In order to solve the problems that we have traditionally been associated with, we have to tackle issues of violence against marginalized groups too. In order to be secular, we have to be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-every single aspect of oppression that plagues our society.

Admittedly, as I said above, I have not gone into detail on every aspect of intersectional oppression. However, what I hope I have done is provide enough of an outline to open a reader's eyes a bit more. To fully explain these issues in one place is functionally impossible. Instead, please follow the links I have included, and explore more about these issues; education is power. Particularly Jason and McIntosh's pieces are very important, and read the bloggers I listed as well. The 
Incite! Women of Color Against Violence collective has many excellent books out on these subjects, and I would highly recommend you support them. Resources are everywhere; as good skeptics, I think we can all find them and investigate them.

Right now, this movement at large does not include everyone. It does not give everyone equal time. Instead, it lionizes the classic fount of knowledge; the white, male academics. We must include everyone in our struggle, or be swept aside into irrelevance.

Monday, June 25, 2012

All's Aflutter

Hi all,

So, my promise to blog more after Blogathon hasn't really come to fruition, mostly because I've been spending my time since then frantically preparing for the Center for Inquiry conference at which I spoke, paneled, rabble-roused, and have finally just returned from and slept off. The audio/video from my talk will hopefully surface soon, in which you'll get to see just what it looks like to be ridiculously nervous, somewhat unprepared, sleep deprived, and angry on stage.

In the meantime, I'm working on turning that talk into a blog post, and reworking it a bit for the Secular Student Alliance conference in 10 (!!!!!!) days. Before then, and before I jet off to Connecticut for three weeks of desperately needed relaxation, I hope to complete another post stemming from my discussion of Habermas and Taylor, and advance my philosophical project a bit.

Before I go, a huge, huge thank you to Debbie Goddard for bringing me out to Amherst for the conference. Despite being extremely tired, I had a great time. I met so many incredibly awesome people, including Rebecca Watson, and hung out with lots more who I knew, some well and some not so much, from previous conferences. James Croft and I even avoided challenging one another to a duel! 


All in all, it was a blast, especially hanging out in the green room with Amanda Knief and Ed Brayton, who I give full credit (along with Sarah and Ben) to keeping me sane through my darkest moments. 

Til later.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Kingdom for a Decent Mayor

What is it about American cities having evil mayors? It seems like it has been a theme throughout our history, from Mayor Ogden building Chicago on the back of speculation capital to line his own pockets, and continuing ever onwards; even in films, it seems like it's always the mayor who's the scheming mastermind (Bullitt comes immediately to mind for my fellow McQueen fans), to the contemporary example of Boris Johnson in London, who until recently I did believe was actually a character on a BBC show and not actually their mayor. He is that much of a comedy villain.

So, for the past couple of years, there has been some solace in my heart knowing that, after years of the likes of Giuliani and Jerry Springer (yes, he was really the mayor of Cincinnati. For real), that All American Hero Cory Booker was holding down the fort in Newark, New Jersey. This dude seemed like the real deal: a Rhodes Scholar, who while at Yale Law School ran free clinics for low-income people in New Haven, during his tenure he has vastly reduced Newark's sky high violence rate, spent hours of his own time patrolling the streets where police presence has been low, and just recently, sent the nation a-swooning when he first shoveled an old man's driveway after his daughter asked him on Twitter to help because she feared her father could not do it, and then topped that by running into a fucking burning building, unable to be restrained by his police escort, and carried a woman to safety from it.

Is your chest swelling? Did you sit up a bit straighter? Let a bit of light in, hum something patriotic, think, just for a moment, that everything's gonna be okay, because Cory's out there somewhere, being a badass on the mean streets of Newark?

Yeah, mine did too there for a while. Then this happened:
Cory Booker, the popular and progressive mayor of Newark, New Jersey, attacked the Obama campaign for making an issue of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital during an appearance today on Meet the Press. 
Romney has placed his career at Bain the center of his campaign. On several occassions Romney has asserted that, while at Bain, he was responsible for creating 100,000 jobs. Multiple independent fact checkers have concluded that Romney’s claims on jobs is simply false. 
The Obama campaign has responded by highlighting instances where Romney’s actions at Bain Capital resulted in substantial job loses. On Meet the Press, Booker called criticizing Romney’s time at Bain “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” He also equated criticisms of Romney’s buisness record with racially charged attacks against Obama centered around Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Yeah, you read that right. Our hero, like so many others, has fallen to corporate cash and influence. Turns out he's got massive ties to Wall Street, and is looking to preserve those for future campaigns.

I mean, come on. This is just madness, now. I still like Cory Booker as a person; the amount of effort he puts into his city are unparalleled, and he's done a lot of good things. Fact of the matter is, the realist/pessimist/miserabilist (delete as accurate) in me has to admit that you only get elected in this country these days with massive amounts of money; just look at the recall in Wisconsin. He's clearly making a pragmatic move, hopefully to continue doing good deeds.

But fuck it, Mr. Mayor. I can't help but be depressed. This might just be the last straw, man. While it's never been strong, I've always had a tiny flickering light of optimism in me in regards to politics. There have been just enough decent people, like Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky (minus the Zionism), Sherrod Brown (ditto), Pete Stark, and Elizabeth Warren, who have kept that lick of flame alive. Five people out of 535 Congresspeople, governors, mayors, and president ain't a whole lot, but in sad times, it was enough. Shit, those hundreds of people I mentioned above are mostly fighting to end women's rights, destroy education, and make everything privatized while bombing as many brown people as possible. But when Bernie Sanders gets on the floor and rails against corporate greed, I get a little bit of optimism back.

You, Mayor Booker, were one of them. You were the shining light amongst the mayors, against free-speech hating Rahm Emanuel and Thomas Menino, against megalomaniac supervillain Michael Bloomberg. Now, you're not crushing your own constituents, but the superhero guise is gone.

You're just Clark Kent now, Mayor Booker.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

And in the end...

Well, today has been something quite amazing. This blog has gotten fully four times the number of pageviews it had in total before today, and I have written on everything from high school to Husserl to The Who. I really enjoyed the experience, and hanging with Chana, and getting suggestions and feedback from all y'all.

I hope you'll stick around and listen to me rant some more in the future. I also regularly write over at In Our Words, I'm on Twitter, and this summer I'm very happy to announce that I will be speaking at the Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY as well as appearing at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference in Columbus, OH. I hope to talk to/meet some of you soon!

Why I Think That Art, and Art History, Are Important

For my final full post today, I want to write about why I study art history and why I engage in the art world.

I probably get more shit for my art history major than my philosophy major; there's either a snort, a roll of the eyes, or at best, a "do you want to teach?" type of question. It's a discipline that's seen as old fashioned, from that Walter Pater era of lace cuffs and learned white dudes with whigs who hung out in salones. And, to a degree, that's fairly accurate even now; the history of art, like its practitioners, has been made out in a canonical sense, so that the artists that are well known and celebrated are the reflections of those who write art history: white, male, conservative. Think: who do you think when you think art? You think Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, van Gogh, Pollock. White dudes. The classic essay on this topic, by Linda Nochlin, is a great starting point to understanding why.

It makes sense, in a certain way, given that, with certain exceptions, societal constraints meant that anyone who didn't fit that description could not become artists, much less make work or be noticed by patrons. Similarly, those in power were white and male; why do I point all this out? Because of my belief that art matters because it reflects the political circumstances of when it was made. Art was used to back up the regimes of kings, to subvert the power of others, to give voice to marginalized groups. Visual culture, meaning everything from paintings to manuscripts to movies, has always been primary in society, for good and for ill. The history of art is the history of human civilization.

And, if history is doomed to repeat itself, I want to know what's coming. Because, if art history has taught me one thing, it's that human's tastes for the gaudy and shameless never really change.

Phenomenology, Part 2

Last post, I very briefly introduced you to the thought of Edmund Husserl, specifically relating to his philosophy concerning the natural sciences in order to illustrate to you the kind of reason why many "rationalists," particularly atheists, scorn not just continental philosophy but the discipline as a whole. I will now follow the same formula for Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, but hopefully, will leave you with a very different conclusion.

The first point to make about Merleau-Ponty, and in fact for his relevance to us, is that his philosophy in Phenomenology of Perception in particular is based in a basic refutation of Descartes' dualism. In the latter's famous claim of “I think, I am,” from the Meditations, the subject's knowledge of itself is its basis for understanding all of the other things around it, as based upon the sense. It is an essentially egotistical view, as everything comes through our biased lens and thus gives us a sense of power over the things around us. Merleau-Ponty takes the opposing view to this, arguing that in fact we cannot have any true understanding of those things that are not us, for they are “transcendent... I do not possess them... they are transcendent to the extent that I am ignorant of what they are, and blindly assert their bare existence” (Phenomenology of Perception, 168). We can certainly see that there are things in the world around us, living and otherwise, but we can never truly know anything of their “factual existence.” It is precisely because we perceive the world around us in this manner that we cannot understand that which is not us, because then it is us who ascribes meaning and information to the world. No human being has or will ever be able to fully comprehend the ashtray that Merleau-Ponty speaks of, because it is viewable from a myriad of angles; never in one of those do we see all of its sides, or every burned-in mark from discarded cigarettes.

This line of reasoning follows to matters relating to ourselves as well. In discussing those strongest of feelings, love and will, which always seem the most true and authentic to us, Merleau-Ponty complicates the matter by investigating feelings that are found to be illusory. If these feelings are genuine, then how are we to explain that I lost the romantic intentions I had towards the beautiful woman I met at the bar after a few months of dating, for no discernible reason? It is, the philosopher says, because when I seemed to fall in love with her, I was not, nor am I at any time, fully in possession of an understanding of myself. In falling for the woman, I left my true self behind, and became enraptured by some aspects of her; her smile, her hair, her quick wit, but only aspects nonetheless; it was not true love because I did not love her entire being, and was only able to realize my misstep when I returned to my true self and was able to cast an eye back over my conduct; only in this way can we know ourselves.

This is not, however, to be an argument for doubt, for an existence so steeped in a need for authenticity that it keeps us from going into the world and experiencing life; instead, Merleau-Ponty states that “My love, hated, and will are not certain as mere thoughts about loving, hating and willing; on the contrary the whole certainty is owed to that of the acts of love, hatred or will of which I am quite sure because I perform them” (181). Our inner thoughts about the world around us cannot serve fully as rationales for living because we cannot be perceived by ourselves; we make our own realities, and only through doing can we find ourselves. By doing, we are able to relate ourselves to the world, and here is where understanding, and Merleau-Ponty's argument comes to its conclusion: instead of Descartes “I think, I am,” we should instead say “I am, I think,” for perception can only exist if we are beings in our worlds.

This is a MASSIVE conclusion, one that goes against centuries of philosophical background that essentially took the cogito to be gospel. Why is it important? Because in the years since, science has proven Merleau-Ponty's assertion; neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes' Error (which should be, I think, required reading for EVERYONE), presents evidence for the refutation of the cogito based upon empirical studies of human behavior. His studies of emotion have been accepted and are now taught, and his book is considered a classic 50 years after Merleau-Ponty published his argument. Even though the latter was certainly hostile to the scientific establishment (thought not necessarily the practice of science itself), he was way ahead of the labs in this arena.

My point is, please do not give in to the hubbub and lazy talk of philosophy being for dreamers and impractical types. Yes, some philosophers are scary in that they speak foreign languages and get mistranslated, but that's not a reason to write them off, as I think I have demonstrated here.

Let's Talk About Phenomenology

So, while taking a class on phenomenology last quarter, in between hating pretty much everything about Heidegger and Husserl, I managed to find some aspects of it from one thinker in particular that seemed, contra the two just mentioned, quite logical and empirically based. In this post and probably more to follow, I'm going to examine two famous phenomenologists, Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and see what I can pull from them in order to further my project of reclaiming continental philosophy for those (i.e., the rationalists) who claim it's nothing but fancy wordplay.

Now, there are absolutely legitimate critiques against phenomenology; Husserl is exemplary of most of them. Ideas I, Edmund Husserl put forth a conception of phenomenology in which he advocated for the primacy of consciousness over the natural attitude, or empirical scientific thinking. In parenthesizing, or leaving out of our thoughts, the latter, in a process he called the “phenomenological reduction,” he posited that we would be able to investigate our beings through pure intuition, and only in this way could we reach greater understanding of it. Such a radical idea, such a notionally pure idea, free of suppositions, naturally leaves much to question about it, and thus we have the topic.

The goal from the outset for Husserl is unity, towards which his work has striven. He has constituted it in many different levels now, he says, but must fix the limits of his analysis in order to reach “the ultimate one, the level on which the Objective material thing is actually constituted” What he searches for now is the actual reality of the thing, how it exhibits itself according to its essence, and how that depends upon the human subject for its conception. In the end, he says, “The qualities of materials things... prove to be dependent upon my qualities, the make-up of the experiencing subject, and to be related to my body and my “normal sensibility.” This is because, he says, the Body is the lens through which all perception passes, thus making it an essential part of all perception. It is on this foundation that the Ego is built, and through which the Ego intuits space and senses; the Body is a rock, of the “here and now,” that remains steady and capable of supporting the Ego; it is only in relation to this rock that the Ego can create perception, and know whether the imagined centaur is to the right, or left, whether it is moving or stationary. Without this “center of orientation,” as Husserl puts it, senses would not be able to function as specifically as they do, and without the Ego, the body would be unable to move within the world.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately not. See, Husserl decides later on that all of this empirical thinking, trying to note how he actually thinks his body works using sense perception and the like, is just not adequate enough, and so introduces a concept called "parenthesizing," sometimes translated as "bracketing off," meaning basically to eliminate or to put aside, in this case referring to our "natural attitude," or the naturalistic account that many might use to view and analyze the world. This way, with the nasty reality forgotten, Husserl believes that we can truly engage with perception and through that connect with the mental and spiritual realms, which are subject to their own rules.

It all sounds just a bit religious, doesn't it? Despite all of Husserl's objections to the contrary, we still find him in a strange, Zen-ish idealism. This is the caricatured face of phenomenology; next post, I'll show you the decent, down-to-earth side.

Habermas and Taylor, Part 3: Radical Secularism


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

In two previous posts, I have laid out the arguments as they stand from Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, two of the more prominent philosophers of religion working today. The former laid out a type of secularism that incorporated religious notions of community and such into an overall "postsecular" mode that would define society, while the latter proposed a total redefinition of secularism, a new variety that is not primarily concerned with religion, but one that is devoted to serving the absolute needs of its people while maintaining equality of voice as greatly as possible. In this post, I will lay out my own view, such as it is at this moment.

While I do not think he would necessarily agree with how I would like to characterize it, from these two men I take Taylor's redefinition of the secular to be the most important step for me here. This is not to say I discount Habermas: far from it, I agree wholeheartedly with him that the return to political theology is a dangerous turn (though I disagree with him on the importance he believes religion plays in culture; another post for another time). But, I think, as Taylor does, that his solution does not adequately deal with the "fetishization" of religion in western secular democracies, which I believe is possibly the strongest opponent to the removal of reactionary and regressive tendencies from our governments. Religious privilege is amongst the most odious in our society; as Greta has written on before, religion tends to get a free ride from those with the power to check it. To criticize religion or religious belief in our day and age is still a massive taboo.

Hence why a redefinition of secularism is in order. Taylor writes of the new secularism not referring primarily to being a "bulwark against religion," but creating equality of voice across a society, so that, as he wrote in A Secular Age, to celebrate the integrity of not just one, but many ways of life; sex and celibacy, war and peace, dogs and cats. This is a noble sentiment, and one I agree with, but the question becomes of how such a redefinition becomes possible.

It is tempting, if for but a moment, to take the Marxist view and demand immediate action, a revolution to overthrow the established order and install one based on, as Adorno put it, a perfect mixture of theory and practicality. This would, however, be committing the same crime that I mentioned earlier; that we would be creating a hierarchy of value, where one way is right and all the others are wrong. This will lead to disaster.

So what, then? I still think secularism as an overarching ethical is needed, but revolution of rationalism is not going to cut it. Any redefinition of secularism must, I feel, have a progressive, humanist ethics at its core. This is an ethics that demands action and stances that support true equality for women, full and equal rights for queer people, access to complete medical care and housing for those who want it, the decriminalization of drugs and sex work, and an end to state violence, to name just a few. Secularism must be about fighting oppression, not creating a new privileged class; and in this fight, we fight against all oppression or we fight against none of it.

These three posts should serve as an introduction to my thought on politics and the secular. Throughout the summer and beyond, I will be developing in full the ideas and claims I have laid out here in greater detail. I hope you have found these posts interesting, and if you have questions, objections, or general comments, please put them below and I will answer them as soon as I am able.

And now, for the rest of the night, I may just harp on phenomenology to taunt my rationalist readers. Stay tuned.

Solving the Israel-Palestine Conflict in 50 Words or Less

Another request from Heather.

The answer? End intersecting systems of oppression. Violent fundamentalist eligion being obvious, but more overtly, racism and the military-industrial complex that perpetuates the spread of arms in the area. Lookin' at you, America.

That should settle it.

Back To It in a Bit

Hi all,

I'll be back to blogathonning soon. I'm planning on doing a post an hour now between the post that comes up after this one until 12 AM Central, just because I'm a bit exhausted and would like to analyze the few topics I still want to cover a bit more in-depth than if I was doing every half hour.

Before I'm back to it, though, I would just like to thank everyone who has contributed so far and given me stuff to write about. Pretty much all of you have been students, and I certainly know that none of us have money, so it means even more that you're willing to donate to the SSA to see me write about stuff. It's a truly great organization, so know that you're supporting a good cause.

Also, thank you to everyone who has pointed people my direction today. Greta, Dan, JT, Brianne, et al, I have had more traffic today than in this blog's existence. Thanks for letting your readers know!

Finally, thank you to Chana, who previously spent six hours in a cafe with me writing, talking, and generally being cool as shit like she always is. If you haven't been reading her stuff today, you're doing yourself a disservice.

See you soon!

Habermas and Taylor, Part 2: The Modern Moral Order


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

In a previous post, I briefly detailed Jurgen Habermas' arguments against political theology and his view that a "postsecular" stance is required in order to formulate a society that is truly secular, where religion is incorporated but given no primacy. In this post, I will examine Charles Taylor's response to Habermas.

Taylor objects to Habermas in many respects, most importantly for my purposes in that he views the latter man's conception of a state that incorporates religion as "treating religion as a special case." It's a symptom of secular society as we have known it; he cites the US and France, though very different cases, as examples of how churches, in this case Christianity, have always managed to maintain an apartness from secular government, and are allowed by said government to essentially play by their own rules; take for example tax-exempt status.

This happens, Taylor contends, due to the need of citizens to have common points to rally around, what Taylor calls "collective agency," or that with which people of the same nationality identify with as expressing their freedom and cultural expression, in most cases both. In the democratic era, such notions are not set in stone, and so the legitimacy of the state might seem to be under greater question; that is, unless, the modern secular democracy has a very strong collective identity, which, Taylor believes, is much greater than that expressed by a dictatorship, as democracy requires "much more solidarity and much more commitment to one another in our joint political project" ("Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism"). This task can never be completed, as the project is not unilateral; as such a problem always exists, and can never truly have the same answer, but the fundamental goods remain the same: liberte, egalite, fraternite.

In this sense, Taylor argues that governments labeled "secularist" must be ones that are not primarily aimed as being "bulwarks against religion," but those that best satisfy the needs of an increasingly diverse world; by attempting to maximize the goals of liberty and equality amongst vastly different viewpoints, Taylor believes that the current issue that we atheists so often angst about, having to balance out respect for people's self-determination while not letting their beliefs that we believe to be harmful slide, could be solved, and as a result, the state could truly accept everyone and treat all groups equally.

Later, I will finish this series with my own thoughts.

Break Time.

Hey everyone, Chana and I are going to be packing it in for a bit. Being new to this whole blogathon thing, and also still being fried from finals, we need to refresh and recharge for a bit.

My next post in the Habermas/Taylor series is coming up, and after that I will be back by 7.

Well, all right then.

My friend Evan, who I have known for a really damned long time now, is a terrible person. He has asked me to prove the statement that Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" is in fact a critique of US foreign policy.

Frankly, I don't know how it could be so, as the song is so obviously a love letter to Iran. Just check this out:

Desert loving in your eyes all the way.If I listen to your lies,would you say I'm a man without conviction,I'm a man who doesn't knowhow to sell a contradiction? 
You come and go, you come and go.
Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, chameleon,You come and go, you come and go.Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dreams:red, gold, and green, red, gold, and green. 
Didn't you hear your wicked words ever'y day.And you used to be so sweet. I heard you say that my love was an addiction.When we cling, our love is strong.When you go, you're gone forever.You string along, you string along.

I think it's obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of international relations that Boy George is clearly playing the role of the United States post-1979: the US is a jilted lover (of oil), stunned by the nation's sudden turn away from its love (money), taking off its Shah hat for its Ayatollah crown. Red and gold and green? Red and green for the flag, gold (at the center of the arrangement), standing for gold.

The US' love was an addiction. To oil. The line "When you go, you're gone forever," clearly refers to the closing of the Suez Canal.

Damned Iran. Such a tease.

In which we play with puppies...



... instead of blogging. It's gettin real, folks.

Why Does Sam Harris Matter?

You know who I'm talking about. Sells a lot of books. Says things like this.

I mean, really? Why do we like him?

All he seems to have offered, aside from Letter to a Christian Nation, seems to be Islamophobia and long-since debunked philosophical arguments.

I would really like to know this, everyone. Please help me out.

Can We Define Objective Morality?


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

This one comes in from Mike Mei, formerly of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: he asks how we can define objective morality.

I'm not really sure that we can.

See, my philosophical beginning was with Albert Camus, and to this day I still view one of my first touchstones in my worldview as being the absurdist assertion that there is no intrinsic meaning to the world, but instead we create meaning based on experience. I believe that each and every freethinking person probably views morality in very different ways, but that does not, for me, necessarily mean that one viewpoint is better than another. 

I suppose more than anything I would define myself as a consequentialist. Defined simply, this means that we evaluate how moral an action is based on whether or not it created a good outcome; I'm not a utilitarian, as that relies far too much on Enlightenment notions of ethics for my comfort. But, empirically, we know that actions considered by many to be "good" are not always so; take, for example, a person who gives food to a homeless person out of kindness, without knowing that said homeless person is allergic to an ingredient in the food they were given. And indeed morally "bad" actions can be said to have good outcomes, such as if someone managed to kill a person threatening to kill innocents before they could pull the trigger, as it were. These are basic examples, but I think illustrate the point.

Hence my dilemma. I know, for instance, Dan Fincke over at Camels With Hammers has argued in favor of there being objective morality, but I have yet to properly engage with that material. As such, my answer, for now, is that I do not personally believe it is possible for there to be a set of morals that is objectively right or wrong.

But, I will be happy to hear opposing arguments, and maybe be proven wrong.

Lunch Break!

I need noms. Back at 2:30.


I Aim to Misbehave: A Comment on Humanist Communities

Over at Almost Diamonds and Temple of the Future respectively, Stephanie Zvan and James Croft, two people whose work I think very highly of, are having a discussion on Humanist communities. James and I have previously had discussions on the language use around the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy (now Community, I see), but I have not yet really written my thoughts on the idea of such communities, as counters to the religious variety. I'll do that here, as well as in the future, I'm sure.

I'm going to start with a film reference. In Joss Whedon's Serenity, the movie made to round up some plot lines from the utterly brilliant yet cruelly canceled Firefly, main character Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, has a superb monologue. Without going into too much detail for the philistines among you who have not seen it, it comes after a revelation of a massive coverup by the Alliance, the authoritarian ruling government of the galaxy. It's a horrific tale, and Mal decides that the crew have to reveal it to the people; he says [emphasis mine]
"Sure as I know anything, I know this - they [the Alliance] will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave."
The bolded segment here is the heart of my problem. It was further enforced when Crommunist posted this piece the other day in which he detailed a conversation he and James had had over ostracizing potential attendees from Humanist communities, which James apparently has no problem with doing.

I worry about this quite a bit. One of the things that I have seen over and over again as I have been a secular activist is that atheists and rationalists will use their criticisms of religion to create a new dogma on their own, another set of principles that set up an unchallengeable belief system: as I have learned previously, to criticize Richard Dawkins in this movement is akin to stealing groceries from little old ladies, in terms of the righteous backlash.

Though James will certainly argue otherwise, I worry that this kind of thing is what would happen in a Humanist community like those he wants to set up. When he says things like he did to Crommunist, about not being bothered about accepting everyone, he is inevitably setting up a binary of right and wrong. And, to borrow from Thedor Adorno, we must be wary of creating collective ethos, of setting up hierarchies of morality; collective ethos are almost always conservative ones, which Judith Butler characterizes as postulating a "false unity that attempts to suppress the difficulty and discontinuity existing within any contemporary ethos" (Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 4).

I encourage James and all other secularists to apply the same rationality and skepticism that they prize to their own views. Hierarchical divisions, based on virtue or reason or whatever, will break this movement as sure as anything.

Suggestion: The One Book High Schoolers Should Read


This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

This suggestion comes in from Heather, who asks "If you had the opportunity to choose one book to be required reading in American high schools, which one would it be?"

This is a ridiculously hard question because I am such a book nerd, but I think my answer would ultimately be The People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

I debated in my head some more typical answers, like Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, something Shakespeare, the like, but Chana said that it needs to be something that completely changes the way that you think, and I agree.

Zinn's book is a tome, and an absolute classic. It starts with Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean and continues through to the present day, presenting a narrative of the history of America not through the old rich white men who are all anyone focuses on in high school history classes, but instead takes his readers to the plantations, coal mines, and picket lines of the working classes. For most readers, it is their country seen in an entirely new light; not the land of the free, home of the brave, democracy and apple pie national legend that we all have shoved down our throats from day one, but instead one where the haves exploit and oppress the have nots to maintain their privilege and wealth.

I think Zinn himself described his work best of all.
My history, therefore, describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chavez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism... 
I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.


Schooling, particularly high school, should be about free thought and critical investigation. I think Zinn's book is one of the best catalysts for this that is available.

Habermas and Taylor, Part 1: Political Theology and the Public Sphere

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

As I mentioned briefly before, I am a philosophy and art history major at DePaul University in Chicago when I'm not being the president of DAFT. Thought I'm constantly questioning these two life choices in terms of future career (especially when Richard Carrier posts things like this), I think there is a lot to be gained from the perspective of a philosopher. Yes, certainly, that isn't true for all, but at least in my training thus far, I have learned an immense amount on not only how to write or argue, but on how to think; I now devour books in a completely different way than I used to. For instance, I can't read anything any more without a pen in my hand to underline and annotate. Particularly if it's something I'm going to be referring back to.

In any case, it has been my intention for a long time to write more philosophically on this blog, largely inspired by Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers, who somehow manages to write long posts with very sophisticated but clear arguments damned near every day when he isn't grading. I don't want superpowers, I just want to be able to do that.

So, here's my first musing of the day.

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I've recently been reading quite a lot of theory on secularism and religion in preparation for writing my undergraduate thesis next year, which will be on the topic of apathy and political engagement in a contemporary context, namely in the fact that I think there is an essential dearth of action inherent in liberal secular democracies that allows those in power to continue to rule, even through the tenures of many "elected" officials; I refer to the "smoke-filled room" types, corporate bosses and bankers et al., that seem to be the ones really making the decisions.

In this paper, I want to formulate an argument towards regaining a spirit of activism in the modern world; one of the points of this will be an extended analysis of religious and secular worldviews as motivators. In this post, via Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, I want to take my first step in defining the kind of secularism I think will be needed to make this happen.

The encompassing concept that seems to be defining current debates on secularism and religion in philosophical circles is that of "political theology," or the concept that postulates that religious ways of thinking are prevalent throughout political, social, and economic theories. The classic example of this is Carl Schmitt, who wrote an entire book on the topic: he argued that all political theories relate to government in the same way that theology relates to religion, and particularly used the concept of Original Sin, our old friend, to argue for authoritarianism.

The premise we have here is that politics is propped up in the same way that religion is; through dogmatic ways of thinking that exist to maintain order. Nationalism in particular comes to mind here as a notion of the political acting like the religious.

Contra this, Habermas, one of the more prominent political philosophers of the past few decades, makes the case that the revival of political theology and this notion of "the political" is to attempt to make the state out to be a totality, a historical notion of the nation-state not terribly dissimilar from a Rousseauian social contract, where all citizens of the nation buy into a narrative of power that is based on smoke and legend; such a conception, Habermas contends, has been rendered obsolete by the revelation of state power through what he terms "the public sphere."

Now, however, in a society where the capitalist economic "juggernaut" reigns more than any political philosophy, he sees the resurgence of political theology as an attempt to return the control over these forces to "human agents." This, he argues, is just more smoke and mirrors, and so a new, "postsecular" stance is required, one which has a handle on the continued vitality of religion in public life; it has not gone away, and shows little sign of doing so in a global sense. In a turn that reminds one of Quine, he says that religion is part of the bond of society, but that its language must be secularized into a "universally accessible language," understandable by all, not just the religious or the secular.

In my next post, I will turn to Charles Taylor's critique of Habermas, and offer my own analysis.

The Greatest Live Performance in History

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

So, while I do a bit of philosophizing, feast upon this performance by The Who, which I truly believe to be the best live rock and roll performance ever. Not only because it's awesome, but because Mick Jagger wouldn't release the footage for years, as The Who completely blew the Stones off stage. Ah, jealousy.