Pages

Monday, December 31, 2012

Freezepeaching the WBC

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds came up with an excellent t-shirt idea: an image of a peach, half-frozen in a block of ice, with the slogan "Freeze Peach! Not sure what it is, but it's mine." This is in reference to the continual shouting of "free speech" in order to defend speech which is not in fact "free"-- objectionable speech made on private venues by people who participate in those venues but do not own them, are not in charge of them. Speech like Michael Brutsch aka Violentacrez posting bigotry and photos of scantily clad minors on Reddit. Speech like hassling feminist bloggers on Freethought Blogs and then complaining that the network doesn't actually support freethought if it bans you. Speech like sexual harassment at conferences.

The defense is so common that the words run together after a while (hence "freeze peach"): "Free speech! We have the right to say these things, so there's nothing wrong with saying them!" "Free speech! Preventing speech you don't like promotes a hive mind mentality and squelches reasonable debate!" The answers to these, of course, being: 1. No, you don't, not on someone else's blog or forum or at someone else's conference, and 2. No, it doesn't-- not when the speech in question amounts to harassment  Harassment has a silencing effect on other people, people who actually have something useful to say.

"Freeze peach" is not a condemnation of actual free speech, of course, but a mockery of how people who clearly are a bit fuzzy on how the concept works try to manipulate it in order to justify...well, being douchebags. Basically, that's what it boils down to. It encapsulates two unfortunate but very common conclusions:
1. Free speech is the concept of people being able to say whatever they want, when and wherever they want. People have an obligation to let us-- if they don't, they oppose free speech.
2. The law is a direct reflection of our societal morality. If something is wrong, it should be illegal. If something is not illegal, it must be okay.

I don't think it's necessary to explain why these two unfortunately very common notions are mistaken. I do think they illustrate, however, why it's important to see that the people who make "freeze peach" arguments using these assumptions are not anarchists as they may seem, but authoritarians. They look to an authority-- the law, in this case-- to dictate right and wrong, and assume that what they're doing is right if the law doesn't forbid it and in fact seems to advocate it ("that which is not forbidden is compulsory"). That if something is entrenched in law, it is not only up to the government but individual citizens (as in bloggers, forum moderators, conference organizers, etc.) to support and uphold it.

But really, requiring that such private individuals should uphold freedom of speech does as much for the concept as requiring that individual citizens should uphold the Fourth Amendment would do for private property-- that is, it would destroy all meaning in the notion. Any "search and seizure" of one person's property by another (without consent) would indeed be unreasonable, and any use of another person's private ability to express him/herself (regardless of media) without consent would be a violation of that person's own freedom of speech. If you want to claim freedom of speech to say something reprehensible,  you can find a sympathetic place to express such a thing, do it via your own means, or don't do it at all. Those are your options. You do not get to pirate someone else's platform in order to proclaim some sentiment they don't agree with.

Freedom of speech does not entitle one individual to use another individual's mouthpiece (whatever it may be) to speak. It prevents the government from deciding what that individual may or may not say, regardless of how brilliant and useful, or offensive and pointless, that individual's speech may be. Regardless of the content of the expression, we may not be prohibited from expressing it in public-- unless, that is, it violates one of the tightly conscribed laws in place to protect intellectual property and, in some cases, prevent the expression of outright obscenity (I'm not a fan of obscenity laws, but they do exist).

This is what free speech means. This is what I passionately defend. But because there are so many Americans who either don't understand or don't agree with this (or both), I'm reluctant to don a "freeze peach" shirt. I don't want to mock the people who think free speech defends their ability to be offensive wherever they want by appearing to support some form of government crackdown on offensive speech. Not when there's no shortage of people who support exactly that.

Not when they are signing petitions asking for that:
Users of the White House's "We the People" digital petition platform have flooded the site in support of an effort to officially designate the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. 
The most popular petition was submitted on Dec. 14, the same day as the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., an incident that Westboro responded to by announcing its intent to picket the funerals of the 26 victims, including 20 young children. This plan made them a prime target of hacktivist group Anonymous and eventually drew a well-attended counter-protest to block the church's followers from disrupting the services. 
The individual push has since received the support of nearly 250,000 signees, making it the most popular single petition ever created through the White House initiative. 
The thing is, there is no such thing as a federally recognized hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of groups that it recognizes as hate groups, which is fine because-- you can see this coming-- it's a private organization. But the government has no interested in determining whether a group is "hateful" or not-- not officially, at least-- because hate speech is not against the law. What they do have an interest in monitoring is possible terrorist tendencies, and WBC has bent over backwards to show that they have no interest in committing actual violence against anyone. They have succeeded in becoming almost a caricature of moronic spite, but that isn't illegal. As a sad irony, one of the effects of Anonymous publishing the personal information of Westboro members online was that people took the opportunity to threaten them, which is illegal. And yes, I would say that threatening a hateful person (or who you assume to be a hateful person-- not everyone who was threatened actually is a member of the WBC) with death is worse than being a hateful person.

Am I defending the WBC's beliefs and actions? Not in the slightest. Not any more than the ACLU was defending white supremacy and antisemitism when they defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie IL in 1978, a move that cost them enormous support from people who confused the defense of freedom of expression with defense of the ideas expressed. It's incredibly disturbing to see that when it comes to the WBC, at least a quarter of a million Americans are confused in just this way. Disturbing, but not surprising-- it's not at all uncommon to see people promote freedom only for those who are on their side, ideologically. Nor is it uncommon to see them go into authoritarian mode when an opportunity like this arises, asking the government to violate the rules it set for itself, so long ago, in order punish people they dislike. And no, it doesn't matter whether that dislike is legitimate or not, or how fervently it's held. It's still called injustice when the law is violating someone's freedom in your favor.
Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.
So people...stop demanding precisely that. You actually have more power than the government when it comes to the speech of hateful organizations, because you don't have to allow them on your space. The government does, because its space is public. Its space is for all of us-- including the morons and the bigots. If you don't like it, take a deep breath and contemplate how many people would be happy to count you amongst the undesirables for your beliefs. Trust me, there are loads.

There are better ways to fight bigotry than by whittling away at the freedoms of bigots, because those are our freedoms as well. Let's remember that.

*Yes, I did narrowly avoid titling this post "I could eat a freezepeach for hours" in honor of the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Business model

I have an idea for a business.

It's a delivery service.

It delivers to hospital patients.

Not flowers. Not Mylar balloons. Not stuffed animals. Not baskets of waxy fruit. Those things are all well and good, and plenty of people like and appreciate them. But that's not what my business would deliver.

My business would involve sending a person to a grocery store nearest to the hospital in question on the day of delivery, where they would pick up the following:

1. Three current issues of the recipient's favorite magazines (commonly available-- unless there's a Barnes and Noble nearby, which could be visited for an additional fee if the recipient really wants his/her Skeptical Inquirer or Utne Reader).
2. Five assorted pastries from the bakery.
3. A bottle of red wine in the $12-15 price range, with a screw cap lid.
4. A deli tray. Something with an assortment of cheeses, possibly meats as well, and some nice crackers. If not all of these are available in one package, the runner could pick up a box of Wheat Thins.

The runner would then purchase these items, place them all in a big paper bag with the recipient's name on it, and deliver them to the recipient-- with a note from the sender explaining how much he or she would really like to be there, having picked up these things him or herself, but unfortunately distance, time, and/or finances are just too much of an impediment.

This service would be reasonably priced, to offset the latter concern.

It would be called Send-a-Friend.

Oh, and there would have to be an app for it. You know, because.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Marching, not racing

Item #3, "Make you like us," conspicuously absent.
So the Supreme Court has some consideration of gay marriage coming up, in two different forms. First there are a number of cases involving the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which may be added to the docket, which specifically would entail addressing whether the act violates equal protection guarantees under the 5th Amendment's due process clause when applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their own state. Then there's Hollingsworth v. Perry which address Prop 8, the California ballot measure which denies legal marriage to same sex couples in that state. The issue there is whether such a provision on the part of an individual state counts as a violation of the Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee to equal protection under the law.

(Both of these case make me fervently wish that there was a Supreme Court channel. C-SPAN, make it happen. All SCOTUS, all the time. I'd watch it. I'd totally settle for a livestream, if it's a good one. Just saying.)

Given the current makeup of the court, there's little reason to be optimistic. They might declare DOMA unconstitutional, but they might not. And it's very unlikely that they will declare that state measures banning gay marriage are a violation of equal protection across the board.

Some recent advances in civil rights which can be attributed to SCOTUS:
  • Desegregation: With Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the court decided against racial segregation in schools. 
  • Interracial marriage: With Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the court declared that laws against miscegenation are unconstitutional. 
  • Abortion: In Roe v. Wade in 1973, the court ruled that there is a right to personal privacy which renders unconstitutional laws prohibiting abortion.
  • Homosexuality: With Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, the court ruled against state laws banning sodomy. 
And of course, along the way the court has had several misses-- it has frequently ruled against civil liberties before it has ruled for them (see Plessy v. Ferguson, Pace v. Alabama, and Bowers v. Harwick). It will not be a surprise if it does so again in these cases. When it moves toward freedom, the court moves slowly. And it does not always move toward freedom.

Still, it's disturbing to see a position like the following:
Here is a movie plot you have never seen and never will see: a disadvantaged athlete struggles against the odds, makes it to the Olympics by sheer force of grit and talent, and is ahead in the race for gold—when, with the finish line in sight, the referee calls off the competition, hands the hero a medal, and everybody goes home.
 Gay Americans are in sight of winning marriage not merely as a gift of five referees but in public competition against the all the arguments and money our opponents can throw at us. A Supreme Court intervention now would deprive us of that victory. Our right to marry would never enjoy the deep legitimacy that only a popular mandate can bring.
I tell my gay friends: imagine if the Supreme Court had ordered gay marriage this past June, at the end of its 2011-2012 term. November’s game-changing electoral victories would never have happened. Gay marriage advocates would be forever stereotyped as political losers who won by running to mommy. Our opponents would mock and denigrate our marriages as court-created, legalistic fictions. The country would never have shown how much it has changed. 
If we have come that far in five years, imagine where we might be in five more. Imagine, then, the opportunities to extend and consolidate support that we will lose if the Supreme Court steps in now. Strange but true: a favorable Supreme Court intervention next year would make us weaker, not stronger.
This piece, by Jonathan Rauch at The New Republic, makes me wonder how Rauch's gay friends haven't strangled him.

So does desegregation not have “deep legitimacy”? Interracial marriage? Reproductive freedom? Because these rights were acknowledged by the Supreme Court, does that mean they’re less legitimate, and amount to being handed a prize by a referee before you’ve actually earned it?

Because we know, after all, that rights are earned by minorities. It should be a matter of popular opinion, because getting everyone to like you should be the foundation of “legitimate” personhood.

What?

This is an argument that could only be made by someone who doesn't believe that marriage equality is a civil right. It is, for that matter, an argument I've heard many times over by opponents of marriage equality, because they think it is somehow up to gays and lesbians to convince the rest of us that they're charming enough to be allowed to marry the person they love, just like anyone else. The way a minority "wins" is to win the affection of the majority, and eventually by popular appeal the majority will grant them the status of equals.

And yes, that would be great. Except you know what? The unwillingness of majorities to recognize the equality of minorities is called bigotry, and minorities shouldn't have to cure bigots of their bigotry to get that acceptance in order for that to be the basis of their legal recognition as equals. In the Olympic race analogy, that would be like the runner having to stop along the way to make sure that a majority of the fans lining the track with their arms outstretched are willing to give him/her a high five, before the referee is willing to acknowledge that he/she made it over the finish line. For the race is not to the swift, but to the likable...

No. Gay rights are legitimate because they are civil rights, and civil rights should not be up to a popular vote. It would be nice if there was popular acknowledgement of the legitimacy of gay rights, but a) it's not a requirement, and b) there is ample evidence that such acknowledgement can follow a SCOTUS decision rather than needing to precipitate it or render it unnecessary. In that regard, SCOTUS is more like a teacher who steps in and prevents all of the straight kids from bullying the gay kid. Sure, it would be great if the kids would just stop bullying the gay kid on their own, but...let's not hold our breath that they will. They can go through catharsis and character development on their own time-- it's not the responsibility of the gay kid to make them.

TMT

Terror management theory sounds like a government doctrine on how to combat suicide bombers. It is actually, however, the name for a discipline of psychology devoted to the study of how people deal with being...well, terrified. How they cope, mentally, with the knowledge that they are mortal-- that they will eventually die, with reminders of this occurring regularly in the form of other people dying. Terror management theory asserts that mortality salience (being made to consider your own death) affects people's decision-making on an individual and group level, which makes us different from every other species on earth because we are probably the only ones who can consider the possibility of our deaths. Many non-human animals can experience fear, but that instinctual avoidance of predators isn't "death avoidance" per se. They don't want to be eaten because being chomped on sucks, and being chomped on continually until there's nothing left of you probably sucks even more. At least, they don't want to try it and find out.

Humans? We also fear being chomped on-- or shot, or stabbed, or infected, or run over, or anything else which causes pain and may end us in the process. But we also fear being ended for its own sake. The cessation of our individual lives. That's scary, regardless of whether we believe another life is going to come after it. Terrence Deacon wrote in The Symbolic Species about how symbols define language use, and our ability as a species to do that amazing trick represents the co-evolution of language and the brains who use it.  In other words, symbols make us who we are-- big brained apes with the capacity to entertain counter-factuals (things that could be true, or were true, or will be true, but aren't true right this instant) and use them to communicate about things that aren't right there in front of us (a symbol being something that stands for something else). We are so attached to this ability, he said, that we effectively have made symbols of ourselves, and we fear death because it represents the end of that symbol. If we end, all of the things we stand for will end. All of the significance, all of the meaning. That's what we fear.

Which could explain why terror management theorists have found that mortality salience has a particular effect on us-- it makes us want to preserve the cultural meanings we share with others in our group at all costs. When faced with something threatening, with the fact of others dying and the reminder that we ourselves could die and will die eventually, we become more insular. Less tolerant of dissent. More suspicious of defectors and traitors. More certain that our way is the right way, and more likely to adopt a "with us or against" us policy. The biggest example most Americans have of this is the aftermath of 9/11, but any tragic event can trigger these feelings. On the plus side, we can draw together with those who sympathize both emotionally and ideologically, and provide support for each other on both fronts. Unfortunately that comes with a corresponding desire to jettison, again ideologically or even physically, those who take a different view.

As with all biases, I don't think that simply realizing the existence of one and learning about it can somehow shield you from experiencing and acting on it. But I think it helps.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Consider the source-- a PSA

This post's title (the first part, anyway) is something my mother often said to me when I was a kid and I complained to her about someone insulting me. The meaning: Think about who said this. Are they really credible? Is it worth taking what they say seriously? If not, shrug it off. It's not worth your time. Only take seriously the criticisms of someone equipped to criticize.

That's good advice. You know what else is good advice, though, paradoxically? To consider the words while disregarding the source:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” 
"When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
These are good quotes, regardless of who said them. There are certainly many different occasions on which it's important to note the origin of a quote-- if it's the insight of someone who discovered something, the emotional outlook of someone who experienced something extraordinary, a moral judgment from someone who was revealed to have done precisely the thing described (i.e. a hypocrite), an incidence of intentional or unintentional irony, and so on.

But if the quote is simply profound, witty, insightful, worth repeating for its own sake? Do so-- absolutely do so! But cite the author in order to do credit to him/her, rather than to use that person as an authority whose gravitas or expertise is supposed to automatically render the statement true or meaningful.  And never just assume that whomever is attributed as a source necessarily is. Especially on Facebook.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Farmageddon

Woman Milking Cow. Albert J. Ewing, Ohio Historical Society
Farmageddon is a 2011 documentary now streaming on Netflix. I watched it last night, and will probably watch it again soon because there's a lot to...err...digest there. I'd suggest watching Food Inc. first, except that unfortunately it is no longer streaming. Food Inc. is about how mass production of foodstuffs by corporations leads to it being less healthy to the consumer and the environment and less ethical in terms of treatment of livestock, whereas Farmageddon is more about the efforts of small farmers to make a living and produce what they consider to be healthy food, only to be thwarted by the same regulations that prop up those corporations depicted in Food Inc. One of the reviews I read for Farmageddon described it as "anti-government," but that's not exactly true. After all, one of the criticisms made is that government agencies are not regulating enough. The general criticism, however, is that they are not regulating well.

But what does "not regulating well" mean? It means, basically, that these agencies lack perspective, and injustice is born whenever perspective is absent. The argument is not against regulation generally, but it's about what happens when regulation stops being about protecting people and becomes more about protecting interests. For example, both of these movies feature sustainable farmer Joel Salatin (whom I've written about before). He has written and speaks about how government regulations punish small farmers for being small farmers regularly, but one of the most striking examples I've seen of this was actually about a friend of his described in The Omnivore's Dilemma who constructed a small-scale slaughterhouse to exacting USDA standards only to find, once it was built, that he couldn't use it because there were no USDA standards which would allow for the necessary regular inspection and approval of a small-scale slaughterhouse. Which means, in other words, that he could raise livestock but not slaughter and sell it-- not because there was anything wrong with the livestock, or with the means of slaughtering, but because the regulations themselves would not allow it.

Now, I'm pretty extreme when it comes to these things. One of my favorite causes is Keep Food Legal, because I basically believe that if you can produce something, you should be allowed to consume it. And if you can consume it (or do it), you should be allowed to sell it. That's a very anti-regulation stance, except that I think that the government should be able to demand that if you hire people to produce food you should make it possible for them to do it safely, and that if the food you sell is poisonous or otherwise harmful in a way that isn't made known to the consumer then you should be legally held responsible for that. In other words, I see a place for OSHA, the FDA, and the USDA-- I just think that they're doing too much in some places and too little in others, and they're doing it too much in service of the profit motives of corporations instead of the public welfare.

If you watch Farmageddon, you will get ample examples of this. It's heartbreaking and horrifying to see the privacy of a family farm invaded and their produce and animals seized by a load of men pointing guns around as if they're wandering into a warzone rather than taking some vegetables and sheep from some people in pajamas. It's even more ridiculous than a marijuana seizure, and I'm surprised to not yet have heard about SCOTUS debating whether it's permissible to conduct no-knock raids on suspicion of raw milk possession (Scalia and Thomas, of course, would be in favor).

Raw milk, it should be noted, is a heavy point of this film. The director firmly believes that consumption of raw milk was the key to relieving her son's allergies, and the health benefits of such are touted throughout the movie. I would strongly suggest ignoring all of that. Regulations preventing the production and consumption of raw milk would be equally unjust if it wasn't a magical panacea, so let's just assume it isn't. It is, however, particularly illustrative of the inequity if everything being discussed is actually health food-- if government regulations and subsidies favor the production of what will make you fat while inhibiting what will  make you healthy-- so you can hardly blame the film for harping on that. I'm just saying it isn't necessary. Chocolate isn't good for you, but it would still be wrong to break into confectionaries in the early morning to wave guns around and confiscate everything containing more than 150 calories an ounce.

In the ongoing healthcare debate, the ethics of how to treat people who produce and consume food-- any kind of food-- is an important topic. I'd say that the message of Farmageddon, a correct and supported message, is Not like this. People who are trying to make and sell what they believe to be healthy food are not criminals, and should not be treated as such. Like a good documentary, this one illustrates the problem clearly.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Youtube time

My favorite show on YouTube, Tabletop, is currently on hiatus. So I'm catching up on Kid Snippets/Kid History on the BoredShortsTV channel, which reminded me to suggest them to you.

One of my favorite Kid Snippets (shorter): "Lunch"

One of my favorite Kid Histories (longer): "Babysitting"


Christian like me

[Religiously] Unaffiliated Americans are also less likely to vote in presidential elections than other religious groups. Although they make up 19% of the adult population, the AVS found that only 16% of unaffiliated are likely voters.
This quote, from The Evolution of the Religiously Unaffiliated Vote, 1980-2008, made me pause for a moment. Not to think about the importance or ethics of voting (or not voting, as the case may be). That is a fascinating topic, but one I don't want to address right now. What I'm thinking about, actually, is what it says in terms of privilege.

Think about the fuss raised about Mitt Romney being Mormon, at least before he received the Republican nomination. It's the exact same fuss that was raised in 2008, if you recall. Not the right kind of Christian. Not a Christian at all, according to some. Because, you see, Mormons aren't real Christians. It was an uncanny echo of the objections raised to JFK, who also wasn't a "real Christian" in spite of considering himself one. Obama, we hear, is also not a Christian. Sure, he might attend church. He might have written prolifically about his faith, and even belong to a Protestant denomination-- United Church of Christ. But according to opponents who obviously know Obama's faith more than he does himself, he's actually, secretly, a Muslim. Or an atheist. Or both.

Evangelist Billy Graham's career has been in large part about advising presidential candidates and presidents on how to be more Christian, or at least appear to be. According to With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,* Graham (who is a registered Democrat, but opposed Kennedy because he was Catholic) began functioning in the role of adviser to the president on behalf of evangelical America with Richard Nixon, whom he advised to actually attend church every once in a while. Graham, for all of the legitimate criticisms one could make of his beliefs, was (and is, so far as I can tell-- he's still kicking around at age 94) at least earnest about them. He didn't want to control the presidency or the government; he wanted a voice-- according to Graham, Jesus did not have a political party (though he did, apparently, have opinions). In 1979 Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell's so-called Moral Majority, saying:
I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven't been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.
It's notable this same person supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012, and also that he has spent considerable time in his remaining years lending his name to causes opposing gay rights. Graham, who has been called "the Protestant Pope," is a complicated man-- his son Franklin much less so. The modern religious right is either less thoughtful or less honest, or both.

Now, I ask you to imagine...what if Billy Graham was Richard Dawkins? What if every president in America's history had been a non-believer rather than a Christian, and a self-appointed advocate of secularism became powerful enough to advise every person aspiring to executive office on how to be properly atheist? And this person could decide for all of his followers whether they would join in allegiance in voting for the sufficiently atheistic presidential wannabe, or his/her opponent? I know of Christians who refused to vote in the 2012 election because they didn't consider Romney a proper Christian, even though he represents their politics. Can you imagine if atheists did the same, from their own perspective?

Yeah, neither can I.

*Excellent book, by the way. Great for enhancing your own historical perspective. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Can we all be introverts?

So I see that the Goodreads winner in non-fiction is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I haven't read it, but it's now on my "want to read" list (meaning I'm now using Goodreads, so if you want to add me, feel free). Two things about this, however, make me wonder if introversion has become a "thing": the fact that among the examples mentioned in the book's blurb are a "high octane public speaker" and a "record-breaking salesman," and the fact that this is the non-fiction winner of the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Far be it from me to tell anyone that they can't be an introvert-- I have a general reluctance to tell someone that they're not what they say they are, up to the point of refusing to tell a fish that he's not a monkey if he's willing to wear the ears and tail. And, obviously, I haven't yet read this book so I don't know the stories of the people mentioned in this blurb. But to me, being an introvert doesn't mean you need to "recharge in solitude" after giving your talks, high octane or otherwise-- it means not being able to give them in the first place. Needing to recharge in solitude after (or before) a normal day at work. Putting off interactions that involve talking on the phone or meeting with strangers. That kind of thing. Maybe that's just a more extreme kind of introversion, and time to yourself after a public performance really is a weird thing that most people, most non-introverts, don't need.

Is it surprising that a book on introverts would be among the most popular on Goodreads? Not at all. A lot of extroverts, after all, simply don't read. They're too busy socializing to focus on more than a text or a Facebook update. A book is the perfect thing to be about introverts, when you think about it-- a TV show about extroverts is more fitting, but really, every TV show is about extroverts. Except, okay, Hoarders.

But are all or most voracious readers, Goodreaders even, introverts? I doubt it. And I doubt that all of those who aren't nevertheless have a strong academic interest in the topic, though some of them almost certainly do. So I suspect a bit of introvert...sympathy is going on. I'm not going to call it envy, because a strong aversion to attention from others isn't an enviable thing, considering how much "Look at me"-ing is involved in life as a person (as opposed to, say, a tiger. Hunt by yourself, sleep by yourself, meet another tiger for temporary shenanigans, and then go back to being by yourself, maybe to raise some cubs which popped out of you mysteriously. By yourself). Amazon.com and self-checkout lanes are godsends to the introvert, but life is still full of minor performances like parties and major ones like job interviews and presentations. And introverts-- as I understand them, anyway-- are not performers.

But you know what? It's okay to not like performing. It's also okay to not like performing sometimes, or not like it very much, when you're just not in the mood. It's okay to hate small talk, find fellow patrons at the cinema who yell at the screen annoying rather than endearing, and not understand why people on reality shows tend to go WOOOO so much. That probably doesn't make you an introvert, but it doesn't matter. The introverts' table is, I think, by definition not the cool kids' table. Come sit there with me and have a beer.  We can have a good chat. Quietly.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dear bigots considering parenthood...

I have some things for you to read.

First, please read about how Ashley Miller was disowned by her father for being in love with a black man.

Then, please read this post by Ed Brayton in response, which describes how a friend of his came out to his parents as gay, with rather unexpected results.

Then, consider this:

Don't have children.

If there is a “type” that you would disown your adult child for being in love with, do that child and the rest of the world a favor and don’t reproduce.

Because you never know. You never know.

This crazy thing happens when people grow up, called developing a mind of their own. Even if they don’t manage to fall in love with precisely the “wrong” kind of person according to your standards, chances are extremely good that they will turn out to be non-bigots, or at least to reject the kind of bigotry you hold dear. And then your own children will be embarrassed of you. Not because you drove them to Homecoming in a pink smart car, but because they’ve grown as a person so much more than you managed to. And outgrowing your parents physically is normal, but outgrowing them in love and acceptance is painful.

Don't set yourself up for heartbreak-- your own and your adult daughter or son's-- by deciding to create a family, operating under the illusion that you'll raise them "right" (i.e., inheriting your prejudices) so that they would never choose such a thing. That they will turn out just like you, and not better than you.

Don't count on it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I am not a cockroach-- what materialism is, and isn't

Several years ago, I bounded out of a faculty building on a university campus and, in a thoughtful and optimistic mood, joined a couple of lecturers in the pub across the street. After we'd settled on benches in the garden out back, I mentioned that in the course of my studies, I seemed to be becoming a materialist. The reaction was immediate and memorable: "A Marxist, you mean?"

Not memorable, mind you, because unusual or unexpected. I had, after all, been studying political philosophy that semester, and this was the United Kingdom-- and my interlocutors were British and Austrian, respectively. What else could I possibly mean? After all, Marx was a continuation of a long line of becoming more and more about...well, the material. German philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries has in large part been about coming down from the ideological rafters and starting to deal with mundane, real, ordinary life. Realism in reaction to idealism. Imagine that scene from Mary Poppins in which they visited a friend of hers stuck on the ceiling because he laughed so much, and eventually everyone started laughing along and floated up there with him, while Mary stood on the floor beneath them impatiently waiting for them to come down. Those people floating around, drinking tea? Hegelians. Mary Poppins on the floor (at least, at that specific moment)? Young Hegelians, which sounds like progeny but is actually more reactionary. Estranged progeny. Marx was one of them. He was impatient with philosophers pretending that philosophy could be about things that don't really matter-- or to be more charitable, things that don't really matter in daily, practical existence, such as making a living and feeding yourself and your kids. While Hegel waxed on about the für sich (for itself) and the an sich (for us), Marx took from that a lesson to figure out what it means to exist for yourself as opposed to for someone else, and translated it into a matter of property, and who is control of property. That's Marxist materialism.

That was not really what I meant. But it's connected.

What I meant was that, in the course of studying religion and culture, I for some reason got it into my head that I ought to learn more about the mind and how it produces...well, anything, including culture, to begin with. And with that thought, in rapid succession I read a long list of books which included the following:
  • Consilience, by E.O. Wilson
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett
  • The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
  • Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore (if you have not read this, and are interested in the science and philosophy of consciousness and the theories of principle thinkers on such...do)
  • The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore
  • Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
  • Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett
(This was pre-Breaking the Spell. This was pre-, for that matter, a lot of the popular literature on the cognitive science of religion, which became a thing in 1993 but didn't really catch fire until about ten years later)

When you think about that, it's really no wonder my MA thesis was a mess. It was a struggle between social constructivism-- "continental philosophy"-- as I was being taught, and a much more...well, naturey approach which I'd undergone basically on my own. Now, I hasten to pull up a bit here and note that the constructivist perspectives I was hearing about in the classroom ("post modernist" would be the indelicate term) were not useless. Far from it. I learned how important perspective is-- that it must always be taken into account, and that manifold factors shape one's perspective without any requirement of awareness or acknowledgement on the part of the speaker. I learned what it means to have privilege, and to lack it, and that claims of objectivity must never be taken for granted. That differences are as important as generalities. That it's important, critical, to understand where people with other views are coming from-- but that you don't "win" against them by knowing it; you can't psychoanalyze someone into submission. Anthropology, sociology, psychology...studies of human thought and behavior can't begin and end with what people say about their own motivations for doing things. You need a heterophenomenological approach, which acknowledges that experience but doesn't take it as authoritative. And knowing someone's motivation may not confirm or refute what he or she is saying, but it can tell you a hell of a lot about why they're saying it.

Knowing all of this augmented, rather than detracted from, my understanding that we are simply organisms making our way in the world, in our environment (both natural and social). I started to see culture as more of an extended phenotype than an independent causal force. My thesis was, in retrospect, a rather weak project and a terribly ambitious one at the same time-- I was trying to sell cognitive science to scholars of religion. Make what seemed obvious to me-- that you need to understand the brain in order to understand belief and behavior, including religious belief and behavior-- seem even palatable, much less relevant.

Admittedly, I didn't do the best job. At least, it didn't appear to be very convincing. When it became clear that my PhD was going to be more along those lines, a meeting was held and it was determined that I'd need to go elsewhere. Why not to Denmark, where this university is starting a brand new program for the cognitive science of religion?

Yes. 

Anyway, getting back to materialism. I'm writing this in the first place in reaction to an "open letter to atheists"  posted on Answers in Genesis, which repeats every last misconception and outright falsehood about what it's like to be an atheist-- and therefore a materialist (which doesn't actually follow, but oh well)-- there is. To wit:
Do you feel conflicted about the fact that atheism has no basis in morality (i.e., no absolute right and wrong; no good, no bad?) If someone stabs you in the back, treats you like nothing, steals from you, or lies to you, it doesn’t ultimately matter in an atheistic worldview where everything and everyone are just chemical reactions doing what chemicals do. And further, knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview (since people are just animals) must be disheartening. 
Are you tired of the fact that atheism (which is based in materialism, a popular worldview today) has no basis for logic and reasoning? Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?
Okay, yes, there is a version of materialism which entails that nothing but physical objects exist. That's why I now prefer not to call myself a materialist-- or a material girl, for that matter (diamonds have never been my best friend, or even a close acquaintance, really). I much prefer the term naturalist (which should not be confused with naturist. No nudism in this instance). It means, basically, that the natural world is what we have. That science has it right, and we should consider things to be real only if they have an objectively demonstrable existence. Which means, yes, that supernatural factors should not be taken into account. Metaphysical naturalism pairs well with secular humanism, the ethical philosophy that as humans we have to rely on our own resources and abilities to make existence better. To flourish, to reach our full potential, to do what my former adviser called "becoming divine." But by that, she did not mean we should literally become gods ourselves. She was talking about enabling fulfillment, becoming the best, most satisfying version of yourself. We might have disagreed on several things, including terminology such as this, but not on the concept itself. To hear the author of this "letter to atheists," you'd think such a pursuit would be worthless without a belief in God.

Actually, the author is mistaken about a lot of things, and it makes my head spin to try and articulate exactly how many. Perhaps most ironically, the fact that not only is atheism not based in materialism (since not being convinced of something doesn't need to be "based" in any particular philosophy) but there are plenty of non-materialist atheists out there. Believers in the supernatural are certainly the stars of the mind/body dualism debate, but they certainly aren't the only players. The most obvious part of this portrayal of  "atheists are materialists, which is a crap philosophy" is the inability to imagine that there can be any meaning in life without a belief in God, which I don't think most atheists acknowledge the strength of. That is some powerful conviction, even with the similarly powerful fear of eternal hellfire which frequently accompanies it. What the author of the above letter, Bodie Hodge, is doing is conflating naturalism-- the belief that objective reality is all we have-- with the naturalistic fallacy, which says that the way things are is the way things should be. This is a common mistake, perhaps the most common mistake made regarding any view of life which appears too reductionistic for the person critiquing it: You think this is all there is. That must mean that's all you want it to be. Well, of course not, replies the naturalist. If I point out that we've got a newly built house and several cans of paint, that doesn't mean I'm opposed to having a painted house. I'm simply refusing to believe that the house will be or has already been painted by magical elves. If we want that house to be painted, we'd better get out the brushes and roll up our shirt sleeves.

Similarly, the criticism that "everything and everyone are just chemicals doing what chemicals do" is only really a criticism if you fail to recognize that what chemicals do is freaking amazing. Complaining that what we do and are is chemicals is like complaining that the Sistine Chapel is made of bricks, only worse because a chemical is far more versatile than a brick (and bricks are pretty darn versatile). "Greedy reductionism" is Daniel Dennett's term for when you explain how something works by describing the interactions of its components (reductionism), but in the process of doing so, you leave some things out. You fail to take into account the true complexity of what you're explaining, and end up doing the equivalent of describing how to bake a cake without mentioning that it requires some heat, a move which is legitimately invalid. Anti-reductionism, by contrast, is a refusal to see something in terms of its components in the first place. Opponents of evolutionary theory, and of what I'm going to stick with calling naturalism, often seem to have a hard time with the concept of emergent properties. Or at least, the concept of us being emergent properties. It's okay for a lot of cars to equal traffic, but not for the activity of a load of chemicals to equal consciousness. Dennett was famously quoted as saying that we have a soul, but it's made of lots of tiny robots. Religious anti-reductionists don't like the robots. They don't like the idea of unthinking things combining to form a thinking thing, at least not without the outside help-- the outside design-- of some grander, elevated thinking thing who had this all planned out from the beginning. Whenever that was.

"Knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview..." Religious anti-reductionists have a problem with essentialism, too. And by that I mean, they seem to be addicted to it. They are too fond of it. Things have properties, and those properties are immutable, and there's no room for one thing to turn into another thing-- the very notion is ridiculous. Gender essentialism is the belief that men have to be one thing and women another, and never the twain shall meet-- except to have sex and make babies, of course. That's common enough in religion, but the "atheists are just the same as cockroaches according to atheists" thing is saying that unless we consider humanity to be separate from the rest of existence as distinguished by our relationship with God (aka possession of a soul), then we might as well be cockroaches. Hodge assumes the conclusion of atheists by his own standards-- we reject what he thinks distinguishes us from vermin, therefore we must perceive ourselves as vermin. And wow, that must suck for us, huh? That must be why when you enter a room and turn on the lights, all of the atheists scatter for the dark space under the stove or the fridge.

But strangely...no, we're not. We're living our lives as human beings, thinking thoughts, doing work, relating to others, practicing empathy and creating works of art and caring for family and occasionally taking a road trip or seeing Avatar in 3D or making a podcast about video games. No demonstrable diminished joie de vivre; no elevated angst; no visible heightened incidences of people being told to get off of lawns or general curmudgeonliness (well, I can't exactly speak to that-- I've been a curmudgeon since age 20 or so). Hodge is simply mistaken about the consequences of non-belief, apparently because he cannot comprehend what it's like not to believe. It's like the god-of-the-gaps wrapped up in an argument from incredulity-- "I can't fathom what it's like to not have, much less not need, this thing I find so important. So I can't help but conclude that people who lack it are missing something important, and must suffer from the lacking."

That-- assuming someone's conclusion through the lens of your own philosophy-- is part of prejudice, or more basically it's a form of ignorance which gives birth to prejudice. It seems to be most easily overcome by not just actually getting to know members of the group you're prejudiced against and seeing that they have no existential gaps in their lives which need to be filled, but also by coming to realize that the choice you made (more or less voluntarily, depending), was in fact a choice. There were/are others, equally legitimate. Comparative religion courses are valuable in part because they encourage this realization-- they nudge a student to take note of the fact that if he or she had been born somewhere else, his/her beliefs about the order and creator of the universe might well be radically different. It's fine to stop there-- this is the foundation of inter-faith exchange, after all-- but some of us go on to conclude that if all faith-based perspectives are equally valid, then they are all equally invalid, and that maybe it would be better to go about life on the assumption that they are. This is a conclusion I reached in my junior year of college as a religious studies major, as part of a program at Texas Christian University which I recall the local Campus Crusade for Christ called an "atheist training camp." Not hardly-- it simply wasn't/isn't a seminary.
Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?
No, because I have no trouble distinguishing between the legitimacy of beliefs and the reality of physical objects. I'm perfectly aware that the fact that modus ponens can't be found anywhere in the universe using a GPS or any other tracking device makes it no less real. You will not catch me stepping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute on the conviction that truth is relative, and therefore doesn't matter. But you also won't catch me declaring that gravity (which is not material, but is physical) or modus ponens (which is neither) created the universe, and therefore should be worshiped. One thing a naturalistic worldview does cut down on is relentlessly anthropomorphizing things.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

You fill in the harmony

The Atheist Experience posts that they received an email which reads:
Dillahunty is off his rocker if he thinks feminism is merely the idea that men are equal to women. Feminism is a paranoid leftist ideology with a whole slew of dogmatic principles. A person can believe in equal rights and oppose feminism, without said opposition being contradictory. If I had called into the show to argue about this, I would have easily torn Matt a new one on this topic. 
Screw you, Matt. I believe in equal rights and equal opportunity for EVERYONE. And I hate feminism with a passion. Are you going to argue that my belief in equal rights for women makes me a feminist? Then you’ll have to explain why I disagree with 99% of feminism’s core ideology. Feminism is a hate group that seeks to elevate women above men. 
R.E.M is probably my favorite band of all time, and one of my favorites of their songs is World Leader Pretend, which has lyrics that go:
I sit at my table
and wage war on myself
It seems like it's all, it's all for nothing
I know the barricades
And I know the morter in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons
I use them well
This is my mistake
Let me make it good
I raised the wall
And I will be the one to knock it down
When I read that letter, I could not get this out of my head:


So, there. That's a thing now.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Your own kind of closeness

I promise you'll be happy/And even if you're not/There's more to life than that/Don't ask me what
Happy day-after-Thanksgiving. Today I'm trying to keep my head down, my wallet secreted, and my eyes off any and all commentary devoted to either a) how to find the best deals on Black Friday and where to go for them and when, or b) why trying to find the best deals on Black Friday and go get them makes you a superficial materialist American with a perverse sense of the significance of holidays and family. I'm not going shopping. Nor do I blame those who are; I just don't have the resilience for it. I hate going shopping around the holidays enough without doing so crunched between thousands of other people who are trying to buy the exact same thing, preferably before I can get my hands on it.

I spent my Thanksgiving in a church. No, not a church service-- a church basement, where my father's side of the family has been gathering every year to have dinner and reunite. He has three brothers and two sisters, all with their own families, so that can be a lot of reuniting indeed. Their father, who used to preside over these gatherings, was buried in the graveyard immediately outside of the church in 1998 along with his wife who died in 1966, his second wife who died shortly after he did, and a host of more distant relatives and relatives of relatives with the same German last names repeating and repeating, people whose images can be found in the wall-mounted registry of confirmations performed in that church, located in the basement. There, their faces stare unsmiling in black and white images dating back to the 1920's. Parchment-pale or ruddy (I'd imagine) skin, relentlessly coiffed hair, pressed clothing, blunt expressions which read: Here we are. Experiencing a very different life, with very different expectations. Family is, in large part, about expectations. Those expectations may change, but their existence does not. 

I look at these pictures every time I'm there-- my attendance has been patchy. I haven't always been the most diligent of daughters/cousins/nieces/granddaughters/aunts. But one of the things you realize as you're growing up is the fact that expectations don't exist purely as a means for your family to control you-- yeah, it sure looked like that, didn't it? It's actually to protect them. From insecurity, confusion, weakness, and doubt. Not knowing where they stand. Not knowing where you stand. Not knowing how to relate to you. Not being sure whether cousin Matt got married or is just dating, or has children or not, or is even interested in women-- he might be gay! How are we supposed to keep track of peoples' spouses if we can't even remember what gender they're supposed to be?! (From that perspective you'd think people in favor of "traditional" families would just bite the bullet and support gay marriage, because at least that's a marriage. You can put that on the family tree, and these days there's even a sporting chance that it will produce children, and they can go on the family tree.)

Family traditions are a time-honored way of fixing expectations so that family members have ways to deal with each other's existence. The care and attachment they feel for each other may be authentic, but it isn't always easy to know how to relate to the people rather ironically called your relatives, especially if there are considerable age gaps involved, and traditions are a form of bridge-building. Or rather, they're like a scaffolding on which bridges can be built, if you're interested. You don't have to-- you may not even need a bridge. But if you do, at least you don't have to invent the concept of "bridge" from scratch in order to communicate something important to your family. People start traditions because they see a need to build that scaffolding, and imagine that future family members will as well.

Now wait, you might say-- didn't you just recently bag on tradition pretty hard? Yes, yes I did. But in doing so, what I was saying is that being a tradition doesn't add truth or value to something. Being "traditional" doesn't make something meaningful-- it's a reflection of something being meaningful to some people. A sign that they found it of use for their communicative purposes. Their purposes, which makes it all too obvious what the problem is in trying to apply it to your purposes. Trying to enforce your traditions on someone else is like trying to force them to eat the same thing for dinner that you do-- which is itself a tradition, of course-- and yet there's no shortage of people who not only find it entirely fitting to do so but refer to themselves as "traditional," as if they own the very concept of tradition and it's not possible that others have different, conflicting traditions which they take just as seriously and are just as deserving of consideration. You aren't differently traditioned; this approach insists, you are non-traditioned. You are without tradition. Just as atheists are people of non-belief and people with secular ethics people of non-ethics. Not just different; lacking. If you don't do things like we do, you don't do them at all...according to us.

Yes, that's the point of view of which I'm not fond.

But here's the thing-- a general contempt for tradition, while tempting (especially when you're in your late teens/early 20's) can be read, with some degree of accuracy and understandable license, as a contempt for bridge-building. If your relatives can only speak wedding/funeral/reunion/baby shower/confirmation and you don't speak any of those, it is in a certain sense like refusing to communicate with them at all. And even the most rebellious of us generally don't want to form a new identity for ourselves out of whole cloth. We want someone to come from, a people to claim. Being exiled might not be practiced or even functionally possible in modern Western countries, but being estranged is a raw, agonizing thing that (almost) nobody really wants, regardless of how much of a show they put on which says otherwise. We'd rather love and be loved by our families, no matter what differences there are and how enormous they might be.

I recognize how extraordinarily lucky I am, because I have an amazing family. I don't want to sound preachy or naive-- when people talk about their family gatherings I am reminded of how comparatively casual, accepting, and jovial ours are. My older brother, sister-in-law, and their son couldn't make it up to Thanksgiving this year because of timing and distance and another baby on the way, and they have been dearly missed. Not all families are fortunate to have the kind of relationships that make such missing possible, and I don't want to suggest that it's somehow their fault. Or that in my family, everything is understood, tempers are never strained, and so on. Not the case.

Still. It's important. It's okay for it to be important.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'd like a glue gun, some acrylic paint, and some birth control

A federal judge denied Hobby Lobby's request for exemption from the federal requirement to provide health care coverage which covers contraception, especially (at least, this is what owner David Green claimed to be his basis for objection) the morning-after pill.
In a 28-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton denied a request by Hobby Lobby to prevent the government from enforcing portions of the health care law mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives the company's Christian owners consider objectionable. 
The Oklahoma City-based company and a sister company, Mardel Inc., sued the government in September, claiming the mandate violates the owners' religious beliefs. The owners contend the morning-after and week-after birth control pills are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's womb. They also object to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices. 
At a hearing earlier this month, a government lawyer said the drugs do not cause abortions and that the U.S. has a compelling interest in mandating insurance coverage for them. 
In his ruling denying Hobby Lobby's request for an injunction, Heaton said that while churches and other religious organizations have been granted constitutional protection from the birth-control provisions, "Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations."
Well, they might be-- they sound pretty darn religious to me. But I'm very glad they don't get to impose that religion on their female employees by denying them health coverage.

Now to decide whether to end my personal boycott of Hobby Lobby...shopping for all of my craftsy stuff at Michael's really bites.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Current reading and "reading"

One of the most enjoyable things about Skepticon was actually the drive there. I'm listening to the audiobook of Jeffrey Toobin's The Oath, just as I listened to his The Nine on a long drive a few years ago. His writing lends itself particularly well to being read out loud. The former book (about the Rehnquist Supreme Court) was read by Toobin himself while the latter (about the Roberts SCOTUS) is not, which turned out to be fine as Robertson Dean is an excellent narrator. I didn't quite reach the end by the time I returned home, but am almost there and I'll be sorry when it's finished. Definitely recommended.

After hearing about it on the Professor Blastoff podcast, I've pre-ordered and am looking forward to Jen Kirkman's I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. Oh, and I'm halfway through Tina Fey reading Bossypants and need to finish that.

And after missing this year's beginning of NaNoWriMo, I've resolved to read more fiction. Trouble is, it's difficult to decide what to go with because a novel is always such an emotional investment. Got some possibilities in mind, but have yet to settle on one.

Dear Bill O'Reilly...

...no calculator, moral or otherwise, will make it less expensive to arrest people than to help them. Trust me on this. The more you deny it, the more ridiculous you are:
Is traditional America gone for good? That’s the question Bill O’Reilly tackled during his Talking Points Memo on Monday night. Criticizing “secular progressives,” O’Reilly called for the right kind of politician who will help us confront the “reality of our situation.” 
Traditional America can come back, O’Reilly said, with the right person to make it happen.
Specifically, he pointed to Mitt Romney‘s electoral loss among blacks, women and Latinos. “It was an entitlement election,” he said. 
The media would have you believing the election confirmed election ideology. While that’s not true, he said, secularism is “eroding traditional power.” 
“On paper, the stats look hopeless for traditional Americans,” O’Reilly said. “But they can be reversed. However, it will take a very special politician to do that. By the way, Mitt Romney didn’t even try to marginalize secularism. He basically ignored it.” 
Secular progressives don’t have the right approach, he argued, because they don’t want judgment on personal behavior. For examples, O’Reilly pointed to the issues of out-of-wedlock births, abortion and entitlements. Secular progressives “don’t want limitations on so-called private behavior,” he said. 
The majority of Americans can be persuaded, O’Reilly said, “that the far-left is dangerous outfit, bent of destroying traditional America and replacing it with a social free-fire zone that drives dependency and poverty.” We need to confront that, he added. But too many of our politicians are too cowardly to do so.
Refusing to place limitations on so-called private behavior...that's called freedom, right? Yeah, sounded familiar. Those damn secular progressives and their desire for freedom.

O'Reilly for some reason doesn't delve into the particular ways in which he'd like to limit private behavior, and how doing so would alleviate poverty and the need for "entitlements" and dependency. Probably because the only way he could suggest that his fans would actually get behind-- banning abortion-- would actually result in greater poverty and dependency. Not just because outlawing abortion would make criminals of women and their doctors, and criminals have to be identified, located, arrested, prosecuted, and punished, and that all costs money. But because childbirth costs money-- a lot of money, far more than an abortion-- and raising an unwanted child also costs money:
The women in the Turnaway Study were in comparable economic positions at the time they sought abortions. 45% were on public assistance and two-thirds had household incomes below the federal poverty level. One of the main reasons women cite for wanting to abort is money, and based on the outcomes for the turnaways, it seems they are right. 
Most of the women who were denied an abortion, 86%, were living with their babies a year later. Only 11% had put them up for adoption. Also a year later, they were far more likely to be on public assistance — 76% of the turnaways were on the dole, as opposed to 44% of those who got abortions. 67% percent of the turnaways were below the poverty line (vs. 56% of the women who got abortions), and only 48% had a full time job (vs. 58% of the women who got abortions). 
When a woman is denied the abortion she wants, she is statistically more likely to wind up unemployed, on public assistance, and below the poverty line. Another conclusion we could draw is that denying women abortions places more burden on the state because of these new mothers' increased reliance on public assistance programs.
An abortion is a last ditch effort to prevent what other thing Bill O'Reilly is not fond of? Unwanted pregnancies. Actually, he doesn't much care about pregnancies being unwanted; he cares about them being out of wedlock, because all babies born out of wedlock are going to be on welfare, and only unmarried women want abortions, because they're a bunch of young sluts. Right.

The "young slut" argument is why O'Reilly and friends also stand firmly opposed to the single biggest thing in the way of unwanted pregnancies that government can actually do something about, which is of course contraception. Providing education about contraception and making it easier for people to access it would save loads of money and prevent abortions, but O'Reilly doesn't like that because a) government spending money is wrong, at least if it's to provide education or financial assistance to people rather than to arrest and prosecute them, and b) doing so would amount to the government implying that it's okay to have sex without making a baby, and that's only a message a secular progressive would want to send to the young sluts. The message Bill O'Reilly would send is, of course: Don't have sex, until you get married. Then have sex, but without contraception, so you can have babies. But if you can't afford to have babies, don't come crying to me about abortions or welfare because you're not getting them.

Let's remember, nearly every American woman who is sexually active will use contraception at some point in her life. A typical American woman wants only two children. In order to accomplish this while having a normal sex life, she would have to be using contraception for roughly three decades. And 95% of Americans have had premarital sex.

So, Bill....tell me again how you'd propose to keep us out of poverty and independent by curtailing our personal freedoms? Oh, by being "traditional."


Yeah, I think I'll stick with being a "secular progressive."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Internet antipathy, part 2....thousand

So, one of the people I was most looking forward to seeing (and talking with, if I could come up with something to talk about) at Skepticon was Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience and president of the Atheist Community of Austin. As it was, I only got to see part of his talk on Sunday because I had to check out of my hotel and get out of town, and conversation was limited to Saturday night at Farmer's Gastropub where Ed Brayton suggested that I'd said something about Dillahunty being banned from Freethought Blogs (a joke stemming from this non-joke, which unfortunately many don't grasp as a joke and I didn't want to be mistaken for one of them-- clear as mud, right?).

Anyway. Dillahunty's house was burgled yesterday, and he posted about it on Facebook. The thief or thieves  made off with some valuable jewelry, electronics, and other things. JT Eberhard responded to this by posting on his blog at Patheos that he really is short on cash (boy, I get that) but he would be donating any revenue resulting from hits on that post to Matt Dillahunty and his wife Beth in order to replace some of what was lost. Since that includes Beth's wedding ring, not all of it is replaceable regardless of how much money is raised. But you get the intent of the gesture.  

Or at least, I got the intent of the gesture....some people on Reddit are having a hard time of it. The general thrust of their position is:
  1. Matt said on Facebook that he didn't require donations, therefore it's not just unnecessary but wrong and offensive to donate, 
  2. The stolen items were expensive, which means that Matt and Beth are filthy rich and it would be ridiculous to donate to replace such items when there are much needier people in the world,
  3. Matt and Beth's insurance should cover the full cost, and if they don't have insurance then this should just be a little lesson to them, and
  4. Who the hell is Matt Dillahunty, anyway?
These are reasons why Reddit has been labeled a "swirling pit of asshole." One such troglodyte even took the opportunity call Dillahunty fat. It wasn't enough to shrug and say "I'm not interested," or just pass over the thread completely in a non-vernal expression of that same sentiment....they had to play "Dear Muslima" about it and try to shame someone for trying to be charitable and help out a friend and good guy who experienced something really horrible. That's a serious case of empathy impairment, right there. 

Maybe it's particularly salient to me because I've experienced a very similar thing a few years ago-- some people broke into my apartment and stole things. And the things they stole were expensive-- two laptops. They didn't know that one of the laptops was completely non-functional, and had in fact been replaced by the other one but I couldn't bring myself to trash the old one. Maybe they told themselves that my ownership of such things meant I was wealthy, and that if I could afford such things, I could afford to replace them. Wrong. And no, I had no renter's insurance. And my MA dissertation was on the working laptop. 

But as with Matt and Beth, the worst thing about it was the feeling of violation-- the broken window, the door left open, the knowledge that someone has been in your space. The feeling that can't exactly be alleviated, but at least can be softened a bit by the knowledge that people care about you. And online, this is the form that care tends to take. 


Politics for creative types

Matthew Inman's comic on the creative process (which you've almost certainly seen already because you already read The Oatmeal; and if you haven't because you don't, now's the time to start) got me thinking about creativity and political leanings. I don't know anything about Inman's own politics, really, aside from the fact that he has a firm grasp of the notion of copyright, but I wouldn't be surprised if he leans to the left at least a little bit. People who make a living-- and people who wish they could make a living-- producing creative content tend to, and I've been contemplating why that is.

I think it has something to do with just world bias and how utterly it conflicts with the creative market.

See, probably every creative person you know has at some point (probably many points) in their life had the thought about someone "That person produces complete crap, and yet people shower affections, praise, and cash upon him/her." A creative person is intimately aware of how much of his/her success (or lack thereof) is based on a combination of the sheer caprice of public taste and plain' old dumb luck. This does not mean that creative types who are successful didn't earn their success, but rather that their success cannot be summed up simply as the reward of effort, and most of them know this. A creative person doesn't want his/her success to be simply the reward for effort, because that totally discards the notion of talent. And how much of it they have. And how that makes them special.

Note: there's nothing wrong with wanting to be special.

But what this means is that even the most full of him/herself, egotistical artist/writer/performer on the planet-- and there's no shortage of those-- is at least tacitly aware that things could be very different, that he/she might not have been "discovered," that his/her genius might have gone permanently unrecognized, and he/she could have become the proverbial starving artist. Or, in many cases, is one now. So the artist sees the importance of a social safety net, and doesn't look down on those who find themselves needing to land in it. But, you could say, artists don't have to starve-- they could easily do something else! Many of them do do something else! Yes, but one of the things about creativity is that you have to do that, to be that. Creators gotta create. They find themselves doing it regardless of whether anyone's paying attention, let alone paying them for it, and that takes time, energy, and other resources. Money that a non-creative person might spend on tickets to the Super Bowl (no, I'm not saying only non-creative people like football. But...well, hmm. Maybe I am) gets spent instead on paint, instruments, clay, fabric, microphones, and Photoshop. Etc.

But what does this have to do with being liberal, exactly? Well, conservatism is rife with just world bias-- the assumption is "I built this," or, when prompted to be religious, "I built this, with the opportunities God gave me." A conservative's success is his/her own, and a conservative's lack of success is...temporary. Not necessary. A test of faith. Things along those lines. To a conservative, the market is not a matter of public taste-- it's a matter of public recognition of quality, and quality is produced through effort. Effort and know-how. The market approaches objectivity in that regard. Criticize a movie that won out big at the box office, and a conservative will be the first person to remind you of that fact. The existence of Jersey Shore is simply the public not knowing what quality is.

This is why, when a conservative talks about "personal responsibility," he/she is talking about taking responsibility for the fact that you're successful or not, and not bugging anyone else about it. You're poor? Get a job. Got a job? Get another/better job. Do some work; work people will pay you for. Don't take from others, you lazy grasshopper, when all of us ants are putting in an eight-hour day, every day, and providing goods and services the market wants. It might not be "fair" that the market doesn't want whatever it is you are producing, but life ain't fair. Suck it up.

The starving artist does have to suck it up. But they are very aware of the "have" in that sentence. This is why the expression "selling out" exists. This is why creative types can be suspicious of the notion of "property rights"-- because it suggests that property is as important as people. Other rights we're familiar with are about individuals and what individuals are allowed to say, think, and do...property rights are about what they're allowed to have, and that's suspicious. What we're allowed to have has, after all, at some points included other people. The notion of a corporation has made what we have into a person, and liberals are not any happier about the thought of property becoming people than they are about people becoming property.

Property rights are important to me, but I had to learn why they should be. It wasn't nearly as intuitive as the right to be creative, to produce things because you can and want to for your own pleasure and that of others.  I had to come to see property as the necessary condition for that that production, an extension of the individual which the denial of directly inhibits his or her pursuit of happiness. I think that's how you sell the importance of the Fourth Amendment to liberals, to make them regard it as anywhere near as important as the First-- you make it harder for a person to live, to create, to pursue happiness, when you take his or her things away. Creation is done via speaking and doing, and the speaking reduces to doing, and you can't do without stuff. Artists are well-accustomed to doing with less than they'd prefer to have, making it work (because the alternative is to not create at all), but it's possible to see the practical effect of taking away what a person needs, and recognize that the damage that does is similar to that done by attacking or silencing them. And creators are good at nuance, so they can recognize that this doesn't mean taking someone's stuff is identical to attacking or silencing them, though it can amount to the same thing or even be worse. Property rights aren't just so that CEOs can live in enormous houses-- they're also so that your life savings doesn't get confiscated by the police without so much as charging you with a crime, so that your privacy is not invaded for the sake of preventing you from ingesting materials which conservatives find morally objectionable, so that your autonomy is not taken from you because you were caught doing so.

The emphasis on autonomy is, incidentally, why I consider myself a libertarian, albeit a very left-leaning one. I support a safety net, but I also support the ability to do pretty much any kind of gymnastics you care to above it. My sense of personal responsibility doesn't extend to being fully responsible for screwing up your life, and certainly not to others-- or life itself-- screwing it up for you. I strongly believe people should be allowed to make their own mistakes, but there's a limit to how much suffering should be permissible as a consequence, and not everyone who finds themselves suffering made any mistake at all-- certainly not one that the person looking down on them from the balcony of a mansion or the edge of a pulpit couldn't have made just as easily him or herself, if things had gone slightly differently. Trading Places is a damn good movie.

And it was made by creative people. Probably liberals.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How Skepticon is and isn't like going to church

Is: Skepticon is a gathering of like-minded people on specific dates.
Isn't: The particular dates don't matter, except that that also mostly encompass a weekend, but purely for reasons of travel and availability. There is no such thing as a skeptical Sabbath.

Is: Skepticon involves speakers getting up before an audience and issuing proclamations.
Isn't: Those proclamations are not from an agreed-upon text. There is no official doctrine or dogma.

Hemant Mehta compares the drawings by an eight year old
in Sunday school of a good Christian boy (well-groomed,
carrying a cross) and an atheist boy (tattooed, drinking)
Is: Speakers talk about what's important to them, and to members of the audience.
Isn't: What's important is not furthering belief in supernatural entities.

Is: There is a sacrament.
Isn't: It's beer.

Is: There is a lot of talk about religion.
Isn't: Not generally in a favorable light.

Is: You get to hear "God" a lot.
Isn't: It's likely to be followed immediately by "damn."


Is: It's free.
Isn't: Nobody passes a basket. At least, not literally.


Is: There are protesters.
Text: "The Scientific Reliability of The Bible
Psalm 119:138
If the Bible is not true then nothing really
matters. If the Bible is true then nothing else
really matters. SouthCreekChruch.com [sic]
BornofHim.org"
Wait, wait, wait....that's an "is"? Yes. Where (and when) I went to church, there were protesters.
Isn't: Somewhat different kind of protesters. But not terribly different.
Sign: "If You Died Today, Where
Would You Go?"

Is: It happens on a regular basis.
Isn't: Skepticon happens once year. People travel hundreds of miles to reach it, because there isn't anything equivalent happening closer to them.

Is: It's very segregated. You could make pretty accurate arrangements to meet up with someone by saying "I'll see you by the black dude at 4:00."
Isn't: There was somebody making an issue of this. Unfortunately, a lot of people (including myself...I had to get on the road) weren't around to hear it.

Is: People feel a surge of enthusiasm and joy from the knowledge that they are amongst others who sympathize on something very important to them. As one was quoted, "Hanging out with people who agree with me recharges and revitalizes me."
Isn't: Well...

This quote was mentioned by James Croft on Sunday morning (fittingly) during his talk on skeptical and atheist communities. In light of the fact that "non-religious" is the fastest-growing "religious" faction in America, with 1/3 of people under age 30 fitting that description, Croft was encouraging attendees of Skepticon to join and/or start local organizations for the non-religious in order to have that revitalizing and recharging sense of community more often, and to engage in the kind of proactive ethical pursuits that churches often do (collecting food, toys, etc. for the poor) as secular communities, all over the country, when conventions like Skepticon aren't taking place. Croft was encouraging everyone to become more active, to translate that feeling of inward belonging into outward action, which-- if we're to be fair-- is like pulling teeth to get church members to do. People who live fewer than two miles from their place of worship, from the supposed locus of attention of the ever-loving deity who created the universe. I guess they figure he'll take care of it for them. Skeptics don't have that to fall back on.

I think impatience in this case is easy, actually-- particularly if you're the sort of person who has no problem finding people who are very accepting of skepticism and secularism as an important or even necessary element of their day-to-day life, which is also your day-to-day life. It can be easy to discount the comfort that can be found in people who think similarly if you are not one of those (like a secularist in the midwest) who spends every waking moment around people who largely don't.  

I know, I know, it's a messy issue. Routinely, the community of skeptics/atheists/secularists runs up against such concerns, and runs up against them hard. Croft bent over backwards in his talk to make the idea of gathering together seem as palatable to secularists-- who, incidentally, had already made quite a significant show of being willing to gather together at least once a year, for a couple of days, for the sake of common interest and the comfort that comes from that, and for some socialization. Like cons are known to be-- gatherings of enthusiasts.

For me, it was an opportunity to socialize in particular with a friend I've known for a good fifteen years (thank you, internet!), but had never met in person.
Gretchen and Ed Brayton
Damn sure it's not going to be another fifteen years.