Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Anger About the Ambiance of Alcohol

So I wrote about drugs before, but if I’m going to be honest, that’s not everything. That’s the intellectual analysis, certainly, but as it pertains to my life, alcohol and drugs (pretty much just pot) manifest themselves in a very specific way, one that I don’t want to have anything to do with.

People drink for all sorts of reasons. Given how many times I’ve had this particular conversation, I think I have a good idea of what the major ones are. As far as I can tell, it is: it tastes good, it’s a social lubricant, it’s what college kids/20-somethings/high school students/whatever broad community someone considers themselves a part of does, to get drunk, to relax, to forget, to not be sad.

And I think these are almost all terrible reasons. Drinking because you like the taste is fine, within moderation. I happen to hate the taste of alcohol, so that’s one reason for me. Doing something because your community expects you too is stupid unless there’s something fun or meaningful or important about it that underlies the social pressure, and to me, that’s all pretty obvious. Getting drunk is dangerous, painful and unhealthy.

Every other reason has something to do with emotion and comfort, with yourself or in a social situation. If you are trying to make something in your life go better, that’s great. Bettering yourself is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. The problem is that none of those problems are caused by lack of alcohol. They’re caused by something entirely different, and if you never bother to find out what those underlying causes are, your betterment will be artificial, short-lived and you’ll be missing out on a chance to understand yourself better. If you’re unhappy or socially awkward, those are things about your life you should acknowledge and do something about in a healthy and positive way. Alcohol seems like a pretty poor choice for that kind of thing. Again, I’m taking a consequentialism tack, here. A drink that calms you down, to extend the analogy, a hit off a bong - probably not awful things. Not something I want to partake in, but fine. But this is a general habit that people have of not understanding the causes of their problems, and that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

Finally, and possibly most relevantly, there’s a culture that alcohol creates. It’s a culture in which anything goes, in which you can be your stupidest, worst self and have a bullet-proof excuse for doing so. It’s a way to do all the things you’re ashamed of, be the person you wish you were (or weren’t) without shame or guilt. I guess to some people, that sounds fantastic, but I’m not ashamed of myself, and the parts of myself I don’t like are not shoved down into the depths of my consciousness only to be lured out by the presence of ethanol. If there’s a way I want or need to become a better person, I will work at it, day in and day out, until I’ve achieved it. Alcohol is an easy way out. People always tell me it lowers inhibitions. And if I happen to like my inhibitions? What then?

That’s just the personal part, too. In general, parties are, how shall I say, gross. Drunk/high people are often clumsy and irritating. They revel in the profundity of a conversation that would feel stupid to have sober. They almost never want to talk about anything important or interesting or novel in a sophisticated, meaningful way. There are certainly enjoyable aspects, but when everyone I know comes back saying how disgusting it was, I really want to know why they go back. The parties I’ve most liked are those in which I got to be…exactly who I always am. I got to talk to interesting people, have fantastic conversations, be loud and personable, dance and frolic, meet and hug. I do those things all the time, and I’m proud of who I am. Other people, on the other hand, do things they don’t appreciate or respect. They do things they wouldn’t normally do. If alcohol pushes you to do things you lose respect for yourself for, you need to change your priorities or your drinking habits. If it makes you have more respect for yourself, why don’t you bring that into the rest of your life?

And then there’s this arrogance. I’ll never know what it’s like and how amazing it is if I don’t try it. I’m uptight. More like, I have enough respect for myself to not want to do things I would disapprove of, and enough respect to cull all the best parts of some experience into the life I lead every day. This is a statement for me, a life-affirming idea that my life can be something I never want to escape from. I stumble home drunk, collapsing with laughter and exhaustion after a well-lived day. I dance on tables, jamming to great music and kinesthetically expressing myself with friends. I stay up too late having great conversations. I look up at the sky wondering what the meaning of life is. I meditate calmly. And I never wake up with a hangover and dozens of pictures to un-tag.


Also, this is a good read: click

A Thoughtful Analysis of Drugs: A Tee-Totaler's Perspective

I’ve been thinking about drugs lately. It almost seems ridiculous to think so much about them, given that I don’t do them and don’t really want to, but it’s important to me to think about what kind of person I am and why.

If I choose a certain life path, avenue or even just set of activities, I want to know why, and whether that’s an end in itself or a manifestation of something else. It helps me understand myself better and also the way in which I might or should interact with other people. I know plenty of people who take a live and let live tack, but that’s never made much sense to me. If there’s something that you think is immoral or stupid or ridiculous or, on the other hand, important or true or significant, then other people living their lives differently might rightfully prompt you to have certain opinions about them. If, however, the differences are only varied ways of approaching a universal goal of some kind, that’s entirely different, and the distinction is important. I mean, life is a series of normative claims anyway, about how you think life ought to be lived. What is universal, what is objective and what circumstantial, subjective or coincidental is up to each of us to figure out. The point remains that there seems little point in have a coherent, intelligent, logically consistent worldview if you don’t apply it to the world.

The conflict is as follows: I don’t drink or do drugs, I have no intention of doing either, and I don’t think that it’s a particularly good idea. Yet, I know the history of drugs and enhanced consciousness, pain relief, art and various other aspects of human existence, so I would feel inconsistent Puritanically dismissing all of it.

Sometimes, when I’ve been thinking about something deeply for a long time, I encounter a common saying or a basic analysis that explains almost everything I was confused about. This, of course, makes me feel rather unintelligent, but I’m willing to accept that in the search for understanding.

In this case, it was a random AlterNet article about Paris Hilton that only partially talked about drugs. Nonetheless, there was a particular sentence that stood out to me. “Paris Hilton wants to use drugs, either to get in touch with reality or to escape from it.” It might very well be that obvious, and it completely failed to occur to me, probably because I’ve had a very particular type of experience with drugs and alcohol (alcohol is a drug; why don’t people realize this?), and the dialectic didn’t make any sense. But obviously, what I have a problem with is not drugs themselves, it’s their consequences. What they do to people, what people do with them. And if they were used for something else, maybe I wouldn’t mind so much.

So, here’s the deal. I value thoughtfulness, intelligence and engagement with the world. Using them to disengage, to forget, to not have to think deeply about yourself, is evidence that you don’t think those values are always worth upholding. In which case, we disagree, and I will form opinions based on that fact, because those are deeply important to me.

If not, great. I know, as I said, about all of the incredible artists, writers, poets and musicians who were able to engage reality in new and fantastic ways. I know about the scientists who were able to use drugs (on themselves and others) in order to understand the human brain, consciousness and perception better. I know about the political statement that taking some drugs makes, and how important that can be. I know the good it can do people, and I respect all that. Michael Pollan says something great about this:

“Obviously, 99.9 percent of the time, drug experiences are not making any contribution to culture whatsoever, and they're usually a complete waste of time and can also lead to all sorts of problems. So I liken them to mutations: you put out enough novelty in the world in the form of insider experience, and some of it is bound to be really productive, in the same way that if you put enough mutations into a gene or an organism, some of them are going to produce incredible advances.”

That kind of rigor and thoughtfulness, I really respect, and I share his opinions. I don’t think that drugs can do any of that for me, so I don’t do them. But I hear about people being productive and intelligent and thoughtful with their drug use, not letting it consume but rather enhance their life, and I can give my support.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Date of Manufacture: 26.10.1992

The next post or two is going to be a one-sided conversation. All of blogging is a one-sided conversation, to some extent, but I want to take the opportunity of having an outlet on the internet to explain in full and excruciating detail some aspects of my life that people seem at once entirely engrossed in, begging to understand, and at the same time only asking because it’s a passing curiosity, not something they want to hear me pontificate on for minutes at a time. Next time, instead of sitting down to have these conversations for the 1293th time, I’ll just refer people to my blog.

So, part 1: My age.

I am, at the time of this writing, 17 years old. I was born on October 26, 1992, a Monday, in the Salt Lake City Holy Cross Hospital. It’s not a particularly interesting date, except that apparently Even James Ussher, the famous 17th century Irish archbishop who decided that the world was created in 4004 BC stated that while the world had begun on October 23, the Antichrist was born three days later. I’m actually rather proud of that kind of heritage, but other than that, the day is only important to me because of the way I track time with the sun and earth and moon and all that.

I lived a somewhat normal life for several years, growing up on Miami Beach, learning to swim at a very early age and falling in love with a Books and Books on Lincoln Road. When I was 4, I was placed into kindergarten. I don’t think my parents had their eyes set on a precocious future for me. They’re psychologists who study child development, especially learning and cognitive development. They know all of the studies that have demonstrated that slightly older children tend to do better and be overall more successful. I’ve never asked them, but I speculate that they felt, given that I could (and did, avidly and eagerly) read, that I was ready to enter formalized schooling.

The school wasn’t even all that formal; I went to Fairglade Elementary School, a gem in Southern Miami that is, unfortunately, no longer in existence. Its ideals were letting kids learn at their own pace, making sure they got outside, roughed around, played on the swings and learn in interesting and varied ways. I recall, for example, being given a math textbook for a grade higher than my own and learning long division in the grass outside. There was also an area with many trees and sticks and brush and bramble called “The Woods” which we just adored playing in.

But I digress. The point is, this school didn’t care that I was a little young. They took me right in. Then, at some point, I was in the kindergarten room, and I was asked by the teacher to go into the first grade room, where they were learning (and I may never forget this) about the layers of the earth using eggs. There was a chant, which was “Inner core, outer core, mantle, crust” which one said rhythmically and with glee. I began a motley schedule, taking some classes here and some there. I remember the next year, I took some classes with the first grade, some with the second, and naps with the kindergarten class.

I believe the reasoning of the school was that I was intellectually ready. One of my favorite teachers, Ms. Stacey, told me the story later that she had once encountered my four-year old self in the Quiet Room reading a Dr. Seuss book. Surprised, she asked me to read it to her. Once I did, she suspected that I’d memorized it, so she grabbed another book and asked me to read that one, too. As I recall, she was fairly impressed.

I never found out why my parents agreed to it, except that they probably were told by the school that it was in my best interest, and to be honest it probably was. I don’t recall elementary school being all that difficult. I wasn’t particularly mature, and was emotionally somewhat unstable, crying a fair bit. Then again, I was between four and eight.

It was middle school that was really difficult. I went to a small school, with all of thirty kids in my grade. I had told a girl named Grace Heisenbottle that I was nine years old the first day of class, because it hadn’t occurred to me that I shouldn’t. I had enough sense to ask her not to tell. As far as I can tell, she didn’t hate me until I started doing better than her in all of our classes (she had been the top of the class in the elementary school adjoining the middle school). At that point, she told some girl named Alex D. (we had so many Alex’s, they were differentiated by their last initials), and together they told everyone and allied the grade against me. I recall having all of two friends through 6th grade and 8th, with a blip of social success with some incoming students during seventh (who subsequently joined the popular crew the next year). I was fairly miserable for large portions of the time, but that definitely had less to do with my age than with my inability to comprehend why people would expend conscious and considerable effort making me unhappy.

Moving right along, high school was fine. I had a enough friends, and people didn’t really seem to care, except for a few bad apples (also known as a fourth of the male portion of my grade). They made fun of me, but by that time, I had accumulated a measurable amount of self-confidence, and I put it very much to use, making sure that they could hate me all they wanted, but I would always be an ambitious, intelligent, successful, quirky young girl I could be proud of. Looking back, of course, I realize that those qualities didn’t perhaps make me the most approachable of people, but I didn’t much care. I wouldn’t have traded that independent spirit for all the friends in the world.

I really didn’t understand why people disliked me so much. I hated being called annoying in middle school. It was such an easy way to dismiss the whole of who someone was, which felt absolutely awful. In all fairness, though, as someone who came from an unconventional primary schooling and was young, I probably was. Adults always told me that everyone else was jealous. As a child of low self-esteem, I couldn’t understand why anyone could possibly be jealous of me. It seemed the height of absurdity, not to mention arrogance, to think that I was ostracized because of something good about myself. Even as my self-assuredness grew, it was never really something I got my head around. But it continued nonetheless.

So, after a high school experience that was adequate, but left much to be desired, that gave me the notion of people who would love me for who I was but without fully fulfilling on the promise, I got to the University of Chicago. And I made a decision. I wasn’t going to tell a soul how old I was. I value truth, clarity, transparency and honesty, but not at the cost of my emotional well-being, especially as the knowledge wasn't exceptionally important to anyone but myself. I realized, of course, that anyone who cared wasn’t someone I would want to be friends with, but the first weeks in a new state, school and life stage aren’t exactly the time to be going through the torture of applying a litmus test to the population.

Anyway, it worked. No one knew, no one treated me differently. I made a name for myself as a loud, opinionated, argumentative, intelligent student who could hold her own or better with anyone, cared a great deal about the world, politics and deep thinking. When the news came out and got around, it was gradually, slowly, without any of the excitement of gossip. I could play nonchalant, showing by example that if it didn’t matter to me, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else, and that I would accept no change in attitude towards me. Of course, people hated me anyway. But now I knew; they couldn’t handle me, regardless of my date of manufacture. Admittedly, it’s difficult to have someone who’s present and takes up space and wants to talk about interesting, complicated things all. The. Time. And who just never lets up and who, by the way, is an easy target because she’s two years younger than you. But I finally understood that that really wasn’t my problem. Eventually, it became old news, something to joke about in lightness and jest, and something I could finally be completely proud of, without the tinge of social and emotional stress.

So the next year, I did it again. The age I am has affected my life in many ways, has given me a different perspective and vantage point. In that way, it is and will always be a part of me. But of the things people could know about me, it is one of least important and least interesting parts of me. So I decided if it was that irrelevant, I wouldn’t let people judge me for it. I expect a certain amount of respect from my peers, whether they like me or not, and if this was they way I was going to ensure the life that I wanted, then I was damn well going to do it. At this point, most people know, but again, it’s not important, it just happens to be the case. By the way, my birthday’s coming up.

And that is the story of my age, what it means to me and why I don’t tell people even though I am totally and completely proud of it.

I think I’m awesome, and I will never apologize for my birth certificate.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Example 3: Activism and Intellectualism

So that was issues within activism, which I’m sure I could talk about forever. But I sometimes feel the same conflict with activism as a whole, especially as it relates to intellectualism.

It doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict, when I think about it in the comfort of my mind. I have desires I can recognize by introspection relating to happiness, health and well-being, and I have a skill for empathy that allows me to see how other people would want those things as well, and how a properly flourishing society might benefit everyone. I then comprehend the concept of injustice as a deviation from this pattern and seek out its instances, in isolated events and institutionalized inequity. It then takes a great deal of work and courage to discover the causes. Plenty of people and institutions have it in their best interests to stop anyone from doing exactly that, and in the case of societally enacted injustice, the hypotheses can at first appear unfalsifiable without properly conducted longitudinal studies. The possible solutions and their implementations can be even more difficult given the lack of evidence for any particular plan we have to work with. All for the goal of human welfare. Sam Harris and Si Kahn would be proud. It’s an alignment of evolved, passionate instincts with the right way to achieve goals and sub-goals.

And yet, it sometimes feels that, to be an environmentalist, I have to think about the world in terms of inherent value and beauty and mystical energy, and I just don’t. In fact, I don’t even think that sustainability and keeping the environment pristine are intrinsically moral propositions. Genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy should be opposed on principle, but my consequentialist ethics just don’t get me there. Over the course of my life, I’ve switched from viewing feminism as making sure that individual women can achieve the goals they set for themselves, to seeing it as a social movement dedicated to eradicating institutionalized discrimination and sexism put into place by hierarchical, patriarchal systems. It explains why sexism and capitalism often go together, and why sexism is often perpetuated by non-sexists. It makes things like the porn and sex-worker issue rather poignant. I’m mostly drawn to Greta Christina and other pro-porn feminists who recognize the fantastic work that the second wave did to alert us to violent sexism in the industry and in the very concept of making money off of encouraging sexual objectification, but who have decided that the most empowering system we can currently support is one where instead of rejecting industries whole-heartedly, making them safer and less patriarchal places to be. But then I read something like this, and I have to rethink.

Rethinking is hard. It means a massive intellectual undertaking, and while I do it, I can’t define myself, I find it more difficult to take strong positions (because I don’t like to pretend to be sure about things I may be reconsidering), and I can’t take action. So people I might be able to help aren’t being helped because I’m having a philosophical crisis. I remember during the Obama campaign, I canvassed with my dad, and one day I was just having an intellectual breakdown. I couldn’t remember why I supported him anymore, why I was a liberal, why I was doing what I was doing. I asked my dad why we supported Obama, and he gave a good answer, but still an unconvincing one, and I felt terrible asking people to give their votes and approval to something I didn’t agree with. When I’d reconsidered, I felt terrible for not having been able to be sincere about something I believed in. I give credence to those mental glitches, but they make activism extremely difficult. In the political world, we don’t really let people rethink, and we give them hell for changing positions. But that’s exactly what being an intellectual is all about.


My grandmother doesn’t seem to have any problems with intellectualism and activism. She has dedicated her life to grassroots activism, advocacy at the highest levels, worldwide justice, rectification of historical inequities and giving voice to the voiceless, and that’s after her time in politics. At the same time, she introduced me to the joys of sudoku and ken-ken, and once got two bingos in a single scrabble game. One memorable holiday evening in Vermont was spent solving the full page Boxer Day puzzle in the New York Times, with witty repartee all around and compliments given as good answers warranted. I saw her call her sister when the finished a crossword to see who had finished it first. It’s pretty incredible.

Her mother, too, embodied these principles, serving as PR director of the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years after deciding not to be a professor of symbolic logic (on which she wrote a paper proving Bertrand Russell and/or Newton wrong) because being a woman in math, or in academia, was too much of an obstacle. We tell stories about her in my family, of how she used to start crosswords in the upper left corner and never do a word if it didn’t connect to another one. When my grandmother corrected me once when I said there were less moguls on one side of a mountain, I was told that in order to carry on my great grandmother’s legacy, I had better say “fewer.” I could go on.

My dad is a professor of human development with a secondary appointment in pediatrics and a third in electrical engineering. He introduced me to activism of all sorts. He used to do the AIDS Ride for years, and I couldn’t wait until I was allowed to join. He and I have always done the Hazon ride together. He took me to my first rally in 2003, against the Iraq War. We also canvassed for Obama the summer of ’08. Maybe you really can have it all.

But for me, the dilemma remains.

This post is part of a series:

Example 2: Having Opinions

Activism, or even just strong opinion, provides the same set of problems, in a variety of ways. First off is a rethinking of the classic firebrand/diplomat dynamic, about which Greta Christina has written fantastically. The problem is that a brilliant analysis doesn’t make the issue go away, and also, I think she may be oversimplifying. Most social movements aren’t a one-dimensional spectrum; they are way more complicated than that. That’s fine, of course, but when you get people who are not only in conflict but not even addressing the same points, it’s much harder to realize we’re all on the same side.

Any movement can serve as an example, but I’m going to talk about religion. In everyday parlance, it’s easy to squish all of the nuances of thought about the metaphysics of existence, the ontology of the universe, the teleology of life, epistemological concerns about faith and reason into a religious on one side, atheist on the other, agnostic in the middle line. That’s ridiculous. It matters to me whether someone believes in god because they couldn’t imagine a meaningful life without one or because god is a source of morality. It matter whether they oppose religion on principle because of its false teachings or simply because of the disaster it’s wrought. It matters whether religious traditions are important culturally or accomodationist cop-outs. Also, it obviously matters to me whether secularist organizations care more about religious tolerance than they do about exterminating religion. They’re important distinctions, and they really should be talked about. At every moment though, we should be clear about what’s being discussed.

It’s really hard, you know. I just watched this video by TheAmazingAtheist, who I normally think yells more than he thinks. But this happened to be a justifiably angry response to idiotic bigotry, and a surprisingly fervent pro-American ideals stance. I liked it a lot, and I posted it on facebook. The worry, of course, is that my friends who are more in the liberal, tolerant camp will be frustrated that I’ve thrown in my lot with someone who makes a point in his video to discuss how much he hates Islam. It’s certainly problematic, but it’s not a conflict. It’s orthogonal; they have little to do with each other. This is addressing Pat Connell’s remarks about the Islamic Cultural Center and how it relates to the First Amendment. I support the First Amendment, quite a bit, in fact, and it makes me happy to see it defended to vehemently. It’s also great to see an adamantly asshole-ish atheist not take the cowardly stance of opposing the building just because “they don’t like any religious buildings.” The fact that he hates Islam as an ideological system makes his argument all the more powerful. In a video about religious tolerance in general, it might very well detract, but we need to recognize that these lie on non-overlapping categories, and I think it’s important to have people like him, just like him, not like him without the bitchiness, on our side.

On the other hand, PZ Meyers, who is a self-proclaimed dick, but who I admire and like on an intellectual and personal level (I met him! :D) recently responded in what I think is very poor taste to a writer. This commenter, with the moniker of EvolutionSkeptic, told PZ that he has recognized, after much research and self-reflection, the truth of evolution and the lack of evidence for god. He asked, earnestly, how to construct a morality without god. Now, this isn’t, objectively speaking, difficult. In fact, it’s hard to do just the opposite, as this video shows. There’s a wealth of options: Bertrand Russell has some things to say, as does Sam Harris. The classics, of course, are rule or act utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology, but there are more. Furthermore, our innate, evolutionarily designed moral senses tend to serve us just fine. But this person just came out of a long relationship with themselves and that moral compass, and PZ decided to start bitching about how the church isn’t moral at all, given its pedophilic priests and Inquisition and WBC, completely missing the point. Greta Christina has written about how we need to make atheism a more comfortable place to land, and I completely agree. PZ has taken a step in the wrong direction; when you’ve finally convinced someone is not the time to be a dick. Giving them praise, encouragement and some valuable links and resources is. So much as I may agree with the specifics of what were said, it goes contrary to my humanist values to agree with the method, tone and choice of strategy.

It’s not that I need a label, but it can be difficult to navigate the enormous number of choices and spectra in a consistent way, especially when, in the case of orthogonal issues (belief and god and appreciation for religion come to mind), a position on one doesn’t actually necessarily help with a decision on another. The sex industry vis a vis feminism poses many of the same problems.
On an intellectual level, it can feel like getting battered around, fighting off the internet idiots claiming that I’m going to hell on one level, engaging on very hard to follow moral philosophy on another, discussing science and religion while having Francis Collins in the back of my head, getting mad at fellow atheists for forgetting that they’re not actually better than everyone else, taking action on what I believe in while making sure that I’m open to changing my mind at any time, worrying that I’m being too accomodationist in the privacy of my mind while fighting off accusations that I’m overly militant from people who know me. My about me is a good set of examples.

There are just too many positions on too many spectra on too many intellectual levels in too many different contexts to keep track of.

What to do?

This post is part of a series:

Example 1: The Academic Community

I brought up a few small examples in the general post, but here’s a more in depth analysis of the issues of throwing out schools of thought within academia.

Let’s talk about disciplines of thought. Are you a math/science person or a history/English person? Divergent or convergent thinking? One answer or many? Black and white or shades of gray? The dichotomies abound, and you have to pick a side. Again, some of these are elucidating and important. Where would we be if the rationalists hadn’t furiously debated the empiricists? But just as importantly, we now know that they were both wrong, and that in fact, their positions, modified to be in line with modern thought, aren’t really in opposition at all.

When we talk about free will, for example, philosophy is obviously important. What does it mean to be free? How does this relate to consciousness? How does it affect choice and our understanding of the universe? When determinism comes up, physics inevitably does as well, whether the universe is being modeled as a game of pool, or the action potentials across the axons of the neurons in our brains. Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett then come in and remind us of the great importance of biology, not in terms of cells or motor proteins, but in evolution and the way that past successes and failures shape the way we do or do not make choices and perceive the world now. The social sciences then can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human in terms of universals, and then, finally, the humanities show us the great scope of what an overly large brain can create, in art and literature and the rest.

Seems unproblematic. Obviously, the existence of an evolutionary explanation in no way necessarily implies anything about meaningfulness or goodness or badness or how we should try to structure our society these days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Stephen Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, wastes a great deal of time bitching about the academic feminists and the Marxists and the café intellectuals and the social scientists. God, they’re all such post-structuralist, postmodernist, constructivists. They hate science, they’re ruining everything. But, to be fair, there are indeed intrinsic problems. Science has been fraught with pseudo-scientifically justified racism, ethically questionable studies and poorly done analyses of non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich democracies) societies. Nonetheless, it has advanced our understanding of the universe far beyond any armchair analysis has ever done or ever could do (Einsteinian thought experiments included). And while I could go into an analysis of what each “side” (they’re not really that easily separated or compared) has historically gotten right, the fact is it doesn’t matter. The facts do. Whatever is true, is true, and any discussion of what is right or what should be needs to start with what is.

There’s certainly room for improvement. Instead of working assiduously and transparently to understand the world and society and people on a variety of levels and tolerating dissent as it comes up, these different types of academics seem to hate each other. So perhaps we need to restructure the fields we have at our disposal, make sure we’re not committing any category mistakes, be clear and transparent about the assumptions under which we’re operating and ensure, above all else, that our moral claims stay separate from our truth claims and our truth claims are based on solid evidence. That makes all disciplines more flexible, more adaptable and more likely to be right. It allows the feminists and constructivists (who, by the way, Pinker, are not just looking for legal equality or individual empowerment or specifics of that sort. This is social change we’re talking about) to note that it’s been shown that people are exquisitely sensitive to context in terms of the way they see themselves and others and the way they behave. From that empirical basis, they can criticize prevalent racism and sexism and genderization in the media or in our commercial lives. It also allows others trying to effect social change to frame it in a way that, while non-utopian, may be more effective, such as looking closely at in-group and out-group formation rather than trying to eliminate difference or utilizing incentives instead of good will.

So everyone stays on their own turf, understanding and being clear about their own assumptions. That creates a specialized intellectual world that provides a myriad of ways through which to analyze the world. Nonetheless, they learn from each other, not in arguments and axioms, although those might translate, but in the findings that they reach, so that truth can grow as it is shared.

If only, if only.

This post is part of a series:

Confronting Conceptual Conflicts

I’ve written about 3-5 blog posts in the last few days, and I had thought about posting them, but they all seem to be missing something. I pondered it for a while, and it struck me that the problem was, they were really all talking about exactly the same struggle, from several different vantage points.

The problem is one of categories, levels and points of view. One of the most incredible things about being human is the diversity of options available, in action but particularly in thought. For someone who aims for logical consistency, however, this can pose some problems. There are ways of living that are applicable in different circumstances, and acting differently in accordance with separate situations is perfectly rational and justifiable. Regardless, even if the modes of thought or action do not come into direct conflict, their orthogonality can be troubling. Sometimes, too, they do seem to be problematically counter-aligned, and I am forced to make a choice, or at least come at the problem in a more sophisticated or nuanced way.

In general, my feelings about orthogonality or interconnectedness or conflict between conceptual frameworks rest not on an underlying feeling that there actually are deep cracks in my worldview as a result of being a feminist and a scientist or a constructivist and logical postivist, or some such. My problem comes more as a result of the fact that other people tend to draw lines in the sand, and since I either agree with both or neither, the lines themselves, usually taking the form of false dichotomies, tend to make me very uncomfortable.

One of the supreme ways in which to understand the world better, more complexly and more deeply is to jump into different axiomatic structures and see where they take you. It is this opportunity that prompts my profound appreciation for a wide variety of fields, systems of knowledge, cultures, subcultures and simple sets of interests or hobbies. There’s not only the chance to open up new worlds, but also to see the old ones differently. In an idealized intellectual space, a holistic understanding could be reached by integrating ideas and strategies from every subset and class one could think of. Obviously, that’s not always, or maybe ever, possible, but with that as my ideal, it makes sense that hardline ultimatums about belief or thought are irritating.

I’m not saying that we should all be gently accommodating and discuss our differences over cheesecake and coffee. Obviously, strong belief arising from strong evidence is to be admired, and academic debates are actually pretty excellent. They tend to be based on a controversy that no one outside the field knows about, and new data comes in all the time supporting one or the other. That makes them birth grounds of new knowledge, ideas and conceptual frameworks, and also very very exciting. Gould vs. Dawkins (as a general debate) gripped me for over a year, and I just recently threw in my lot behind evolutionary psychology as an extremely important and relevant and valid field of study (for example). What’s especially wonderful about this kind of debate, however, is that at the end of the day, the debate went to rest. The punctuated equilibrists weren’t accusing the gradualists of being awful people who are ignoring the importance of science and empiricism. They fought viciously, certainly, but only within a scientific framework, criticizing the validity of findings or interpretations. On the other hand, Stephen Pinker (whose book was, in general, amazing, by the way, and who I respect a great deal) sounds like an idiot when he accuses intellectuals and Marxists of denying the importance of science and evolutionary theory. There’s just so much wrong with that.

Essentially, I think that the reason categorically throwing out disciplines and groups of people is that, if we don’t recognize the importance of multiple sides, with underlying assumptions of sufficient evidence and valid reasoning to make the time worthwhile, we’re going to get a ton of false negatives, and that has extremely deleterious consequences for an advancing, knowledge-based society.

I go into more detail with these examples:
1. The Academic Community
2. Having Opinions
3. Activism and Intellectualism

Monday, August 30, 2010

Subcultures and What It Means to be Human

The question of what it means to be human is a common one. One of my favorite vloggers, John Green, once said that humans were the only animal that didn’t know how to be itself. Dogs, he claimed, know how to be dogs; at the very least, they don’t seem to worry about it in any outwardly apparent way. Whether or not dogs know they know how to be dogs is another question entirely. Anyway, I obviously don’t have the answer, but I have some ideas.

My first thought is that the question is wrong. Admittedly, this is often my first thought when I don’t know the answer to a question. But it seems that the question of what it means to be human is often conflated with what makes humans unique, which is completely different. I’ll leave that one to the evolutionary psychologists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists and all manner of other scientists, who come up with a new wrong idea every few years or so.

So one idea is that what it means to be human is tautological. We are human. By definition, we’re experts at it; certainly no one else does it better. So whatever it is we do with our lives is what makes us human. One might even argue that the sheer fact of living is so incredible that it doesn’t take much else to make living meaningful.

An easy way to understand what it means to be human is to find the very question meaningful. We can start with the fact that the sheer miracle of our existence is mindblowing. As Carl Sagan says, we are bits of star matter gone cold by accident. This planet, life, sentience, each individual human life – all of these are deeply, only barely calculably improbable events, and they’re fantastic. We can also use this reasoning to appreciate the multitudinous opportunities available to us, and perhaps begin to siphon through them to decide which of these should occupy our time.

If we allow, perhaps, that the goal is then to find those activities that give us happiness, that give us meaning, ignoring for now the possible differences between these goals and the difficult in achieving them, then we have found a possible purpose for human life, a goal of being human. And the best example I’ve ever found of people doing this, doing it passionately and well, is the preponderance of subcultures.

I’m a biker, and biking has played, in part, a political role in my life. When I lived in Miami full-time, my father and I would do critical mass the second Saturday of every month, and that was really fun. It was a group of socially minded people who live out their values and enjoy spending time with others who feel the same. They also just happened to be fun people. Anyway, so my dad and I decided to do a critical mass this last weekend, but it was on Friday. I thought maybe it was just a different version of the usual ride, which they sometimes do. Instead it was the actual Miami Critical Mass, whose formula is traditionally the last Friday of every month. And it was huge! There were at least 200 people there, maybe more.

I’ve been a part of a lot of groups, and sometimes it’s incredible to share a great deal of values and interests with the people around you, but in this case, we were all brought together by one thing: we were bikers. That was it. And seeing the diversity within that subculture was absolutely amazing. There were hipsters with their fixies, parents getting their kids into biking, tricksters doing wheelies, semi-professionals in all their gear, mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, people with and without helmets, in and out of athletic clothing. There was a teacher from my high school, and a guy playing the uke while biking. We were a real critical mass, blocking the roads, riding through red lights, and having a wonderful time being part of a grassroots, almost flash community. It got better, too, with the reactions we received. Some people were angry, obviously, as we were blocking the roads (or, one could claim, they were), but most people were shockingly supportive. They yelled, hollered, hooted, honked and generally showed their appreciation for the way we had decided to live, or just spend an evening.

We went through Viscaya, Allapattah, Midtown and Little Haiti, and everywhere, people came out on the streets to watch us go by, ask us what we were doing, and cheer us on. Kids bunched up and waved at us. I think my favorite part was a guy standing outside of his restaurant just holding up a thumbs up as we passed. But these weren’t one sided interactions, either. We all responded, certainly, and the people who were blocking the cars were talking to the drivers, explaining what we were all about.

That connection with people, the bikers, the people of the community, the people who I share this earth with, has always been the most meaningful experience I’ve ever found, and I was so glad to have it on the Friday. It reminded me that subcultures are a way of immersing yourself fully in some of the beautiful things that life has to offer, with other people who feel similarly, and that they are conduits through which to connect to the rest of humanity.

There are lots of other reasons I like subcultures, but having them teach me about what it means to be human isn’t a bad start.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


CFI just sent this out:

The statement issued by the Center for Inquiry on Friday, August 27 concerning the Ground Zero controversy was interpreted by some as calling for a prohibition on the placement of mosques or other houses of worship near Ground Zero or otherwise speaking out against freedom of religion. That was not the intent of the statement and we regret any misunderstanding. A revised statement that clarifies the Center for Inquiry’s position is set forth below.


The Center for Inquiry’s Statement on the Ground Zero Controversy

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens. There should be no legal impediment to the placement of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, just as there should be no legal impediment to the placement of a church, temple, or synagogue near Ground Zero.

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.

CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

CFI’s unequivocal support for the legal right of Muslims to place a community center near Ground Zero does not imply that CFI views the new center as an event to be celebrated. To the contrary, CFI is committed to the position that reason and science, not faith, are needed to address and resolve humanity’s problems. All religions share a fundamental flaw: they reflect a mistaken understanding of reality. On balance, CFI does not consider houses of worship to be beneficial to humanity, whether they are built at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

This statement supersedes any prior statement issued by CFI regarding the Ground Zero controversy.

Overall, this is a fair and balanced statement regarding the position of CFI, and for this I applaud them. It must be noted, however, that the entire thrust of their mistaken argument was reduced to a controversial but valid statement in the last sentence, and the rest of this press release is filled with fairly obvious ideas to anyone who values freedom of religion. It becomes clear, then, if any status quo-changing argument they could make is fallacious, and they are left to reiterate banal tropes about religion, it would probably have been to CFI's benefit not to get involved at all. They're an atheist/secularist organization, it's not as if anyone was waiting with bated breath to see where they'd fall. This brouhaha has simply discredited them and made their goals that much harder to achieve. I wish them better judgment in the future.

On the bright side, it's totally fantastic that they listened to us, and that the members of CFI cared enough to make a fuss. This is very much a victory, and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

I'm looking forward to a better world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lindsay's Clarifications Don't Make Him Any Less Wrong

I now want to address Ronald Lindsay’s statements vis a vis my argument (which I emailed to the proper address). His arguments are starting to look more and more like the ADL's, which weren't good either. The outcry is warranted. I couldn't find Lindsay's full remarks online, but they're being released by the Department of Communications, so I'll keep an eye out for them. I was emailed them because of my complaint email. Anyway, the important parts are as follows:

CFI in no way called for a “legal ban” on the Center. “Defense of the rights of believers and nonbelievers is part of our mission, as reflected in our mission statement.” But, “Whether such a building would be a good thing for humanity, all things considered, is another issue.” Part of the message is that “faith-based reasoning is not a good thing and, further, without in any way implying that Ground Zero is “sacred,” there is a special poignancy to a new faith-based institution being placed at Ground Zero when the 9/11 attacks were an instance of faith-based terrorism.”

The problems with this are many. Firstly, of course CFI didn’t call for a legal ban on the center. It’s part of their role as an institution to protect freedom of religion, and anyone who cares about the Constitution at all is staying far away from legal arguments, because they obviously hold no water. I didn’t mention anything about a legal ban. I used the phrase “freedom of religion” not because I felt CFI was attacking the principle through legal means, but by targeting this particular edifice unnecessarily, and thus putting undue pressure on the most prominent example of a religious building built around Ground Zero rather than applying the principle equally and consistently. That is cowardice; there is huge controversy surrounding the building already. It’s all too easy for CFI to just jump in the mix, rather than address all religious buildings, such as the Greek Orthodox Church being proposed (though its future is uncertain). By the way, that one is intended to replace the one that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. There is just no way to apply this principle consistently, and so it isn’t useful.

Secondly, he says that the building might not be good for humanity. I demonstrate above that if the CFI Board of Management really felt that all houses of worship were bad for humanity, they’re doing an awful job of demonstrating that consistently. But let’s look at this for a moment. All houses of worship are bad for humanity? We’re equating Unitarian Churches, Reform Synagogues, the Westboro Baptist Church and a Buddhist monastery? Not that I think it matters much; to defend the Islamic Center solely because it satisfies our notions of progressiveness is just as bad as opposing it on Islamophobic grounds. We either support people’s ability to worship as they will or we don’t. But still, it’s a massive oversimplification.

Thirdly, I would argue that there is a tenuous causal link between the existence of places of worship and the flourishing of faith as an epistemology. If all religious buildings evaporated, that wouldn’t eliminate religion, it would just drive it further into the public square. The buildings are just the outward expression, and opposing them does little. If we were discussing the environment created by prominent religious buildings, that’s a different issue, but Linsday didn’t address that. Opposition to this cultural center (which contains many services besides a place of worship) also does nothing to promote rationality and humanism, just a very militant, French-like secularism, which I don’t much support. It’s also, as I say above, an impossible task and one that is, in many ways, counterproductive, offensive and alienating.

Fourthly, let’s look at the alternatives. Does it really appear that public opposition and heckling of a peaceful Muslim community is good for humanity? Because I would like to address the environment created by our actions, and I think it promotes misunderstandings, lack of a public, reasoned response, and xenophobia, especially when we look at the general tenor of the debate. I seriously doubt that CFI would have released a press release if this were a church, mostly because there would have been no public furor to hide behind, which implies that they’re just taking advantage of other people’s bigotry, even if not promoting it themselves. Not much better, in my opinion. Honestly, this brouhaha has made me think that this community center would be excellent for humanity; we need way more Muslims in this country, so that they cease to become the “Other” and become another facet of Us.

Lastly, and I hope this is obvious, there being a “special poignancy”, which is itself up for debate, to building the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero is not reason enough to oppose it. Again, it simply dovetails with the notion that these Muslims are the same as all Muslims, who support organizations like Al-Queda. I do not claim that CFI believes this, and they’ve certainly been clear about stating that they don’t, but the fact remains that the ideas complement each other.

I appreciate Mr. Lindsay responding to the outcry that has erupted in response to his remarks, but unfortunately, the clarification is not better than the original, and all of my arguments still stand.

And a Furor Erupts!

I’m not going to lie, this makes me pretty happy. I woke up from a nap, checked my email and found an email from Nathan Bupp, the Vice President of Communications of CFI, who I’d emailed yesterday. He asked me to correct my “public blog entry” stating that he was the CEO of CFI, which I’ve done. To explain the error, it must be said that the email contained no information as to the writer, except that it was the CEO of CFI, and the full press release on the website listed Nathan Bupp as a contact. Of course, I still have every responsibility to fact check, and to feel stupid, given that Ron Lindsay is quoted in the actual press release as the CEO. I promise I read it, more than once actually, but I was focused on the content so that I could argue against it.

Anyway, that would have been mildly exciting, given that an official of a prominent organization found my blog, but it gets better. He sent me Ron Lindsay’s preliminary remarks that are defending and clarifying the press release. Now, I don’t pretend to be that influential, so I went and checked out the CFI forums, and they are a-buzzing. People are mad. Honestly, I think it’s great, for several reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned in the previous post, when you have a free marketplace of ideas, and a lot of smart, incendiary people, when you do something stupid, people are going to be all over it. Obviously, Mr. Lindsay and the board can do whatever they like, but they know now that their base is angry with them.

Secondly, it’s a relief to know I wasn’t alone in my angry reaction to the press release. I’ve written before about the irritation I feel at people focusing too narrowly on atheism to the exclusion of social justice and humanism. It gets to the point where tribalism comes into play, the rationalists versus them, the irrational, uneducated masses. I’m far from an accomodationist, but I would have to be an idiot to think that only atheists have something to offer to this debate. Even if you just want to talk about creating a social epidemic, finding out who our allies are is a really good idea, even outside of the atheosphere. We’re not going to have any impact just sitting here and talking to each other about how great we are, though there’s a time and a place for that. And if you want to talk about error reduction, note that there are a lot of stupid atheists, which will only get truer as the movement grows, and a lot of very intelligent religious, spiritual or theistic folk who have a lot to add to the discussion.

Anyway, it appears that there is much hope for this movement. We have atheists who are worried about religious freedom not just because it’s legal, because it’s enshrined in the constitution, and because it implies freedom from religion, but also because it’s important to other people, people who are valuable and important. The atheist community also appears to understand that even if it were our ultimate goal to eradicate religion entirely (as a secular Jew who understands the possibility that religion has to be of cultural and historical but not theological significance), going about it by declaring all houses of worship “bad for humanity” is the wrong way of going about it. It’s unproductive, unlikely to work, gratuitously offensive, overly simplistic and not actually in line with our goals. We also understand that even if we’d decided that that were our goal and that were the means by which we would achieve it, targeting the Park51 Community Center rather than any other religious building anywhere, or close to Ground Zero, is cowardly, and feeds xenophobia and bigotry. So that makes me happy.

Center for Inquiry CEO Screws Up

I follow and receive newsletters from a fair few organizations, pertaining to my varying interests. One of these organizations is the Center For Inquiry, which usually does good things like foster a secular society and all that. Organizations like these can bother me sometimes though, when they focus too much on the atheism and the anti-religionism and not enough on the curiosity, the rationalism and the inquiry. Usually, though, I can trust them not to go too far out of line.

So imagine my surprise when I get this delightful piece of news in my inbox: a press release, written by the CEO of CFI, Ron Lindsay, that includes this sentence.

“To honor those killed by faith fanatics, Ground Zero and its immediate vicinity should be kept free of any newly constructed house of worship — of any religion.”

The rest of the press release can be found here.

To summarize: it’s awful. Absolutely idiotic. Demonstrably so, for many many reasons. I saw no reason why such simplemindedness perpetrated by a prominent and ostensibly influential figure ought to go unchallenged, so I wrote to him, detailing my objections. After all, a free marketplace of ideas means nothing if ideas are not up for criticism once in the public sphere. My email went as follows:

“Dear Mr. Bupp,

I am afraid I must wholeheartedly denounce your statements in the recent press release regard the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center. I have supported CFI for many years, but your values seem to have been compromised by your vision for a perfect world.

CFI describes itself as a secular organization, one committed to a variety of social goods including, no doubt, secularism. As you no doubt know, secularism refers not to disbelief in gods or non-religiosity, but simply the removal of religion from public life. As it currently exists in the American consciousness, secularism has taken the tack of ensuring that there is as little government sponsorship of religion as possible. This, in contrast to, for example, the French laïcité, preserves individual freedom of action, thought and conscience. As such, I support this type of secularism.

However, this system of thought would demand that we respect the rights of any group to build whatever structure they deem appropriate on private property. To treat Ground Zero as hallowed is to buy into the false narrative of the Religious Right. I would not have expected you to support such a nebulous and vaguely religious view of sacredness. If two blocks is too close, what about three? Or ten? Or 18,000, as in the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?

I was also surprised to see you employ the argument of sensitivity. As secularists, we anger many who claim the shield of offendedness and sensitivity, but we decry their claims as cheap attempts to shift the focus of debate, as we should. We must apply the same reasoning in this case. New Yorkers, Americans and others may feel sensitivity towards Ground Zero, but that cannot affect the way others choose to live. There are churches and coat factories and porn stores right around Ground Zero. Oughtn't this to trigger sensitivity as well?

Furthermore, your view as a secularist seems to blind you to the political motivations behind Islamic fundamentalism. I would advise you to read Dying to Win, by Robert Pape. It is clear that terrorism is a strategically motivated political act, and has been employed throughout history by religious and nonreligious groups alike. Should we then ban any political groups from building around Ground Zero? To ignore this motivation is to dangerously oversimplify the role of Islamic terrorism in the current political arena.

Finally, you seem to forget that it is not the job of any person, or of CFI, to forcibly make America less religious. That is not the goal of progressive social change. We must simply change the context of the America in which we all must live. You seem to feel however, that if we simply reduce the number of religious buildings, that religiosity will decrease. This is absurd reasoning. Religion must be a part of public life because it is important to people, and they have the freedom to express their values. We must appreciate that it is in the public square so that it is open to critique and public pressure. Driving it underground will cultivate groupthink, group polarization and general antipathy towards secularists, as if we needed any more of that.

I appreciate all that you and your organization have done to create a better America. However, I ask you to consult your humanist understanding of the world when you unthinkingly politicize, as you accuse others of doing, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Center in order to create a less religious America. Your press release supports intolerance, harms religious and nonreligious secularists alike and undermines the work of your own organization.

I ask you then, to please retract your statements.

Thank you,
Chana Messinger”

There are many other arguments I could have brought to bear, but I didn’t want it to get too long. Now I wait and see what happens. I hope he lives up to the values he espouses and sees the error in his ways.

CORRECTION: As the email I received noted that the piece had been written by the CEO of CFI, and the contact was listed as Nathan Bupp, I assumed that they were one and the same. I erred in this, and I take full responsibility for not doing my research. I received an email from Mr. Bupp asking me to correct myself in this blog post, and so I have.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Ground-Zero Mosque, Islamophobia and General Bigotry


And so the controversy rages on. The problem? Muslims. Or traffic. It’s unclear.

What is clear is that there is a growing group of people opposed to any obvious or growing Muslim presence in their communities. It began, of course, with the “Ground-Zero Mosque” which is anything but. It’s not a mosque, but rather an Islamic cultural center, and it’s two blocks away from Ground Zero, where a 12 story building will hardly be seen. Not that any of that should matter in the least. What are the arguments here? That a mosque will be a signal of triumph for the Islamic world over the Western world?

Well, I suppose that makes sense. Except that Islam is no more a monolithic religion than any other, and has given rise to many sects and denominations over its millennium and a half existence. There are liberal Muslims and moderate Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims and Sunnis and Shias and Iranian Muslims and Afghan Muslims and Egyptian Muslims and Arab Muslims and many many more. And in case this isn’t stunningly obvious, while many current terrorist organizations appear to be influenced by a violent strain of Islam, the people they’re fighting are often also influenced and living in the name of Islam. Or isn’t it understood that Muslims fight Muslims, and that mosques are blown up on a regular basis, or that the radical Sunni elements in places like Iraq are fighting back against marginalization executed by American forces, which have placed only Shias in power and oppressed Sunnis, who feel that they have no voice in their government. I’m sorry, is that too complex? I know, political theory and history actually take thought to understand.

It would also be just delightful if it were understood that 9/11 was hardly a triumph for Islam. It was a superficially successful endeavor undertaken for political reasons in order to throw off a foreign invader. In case this wasn’t noticed, the campaign generally failed. We still have troops in Saudi Arabia, whose presence likely began the resentment Al-Qaeda used and grew out of, and now we are killing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly Yemen and/or Iran next. Ignoring for the moment that these are separate nations with distinct histories and relationships with Islam, it doesn’t look like much of a success. I’m sure all those dead civilians are just thrilled that 9/11 “worked.” For whom, exactly? Certainly the military-industrial complex, the Defense Department, the CIA, Blackwater, other mercenary groups and plenty morally bankrupt organizations, but we won’t go there right now. Not for Afghanis, not for Iraqis. And not even for al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

You know who it certainly didn’t work for? American Muslims. Yeah, they’re celebrating the tremendous triumph of being blamed, mistrusted, marginalized and discriminated against for going on a full decade for things they did not do. I’m sure the peaceful Muslims who want to build a cultural center and are being widely opposed by a rapidly formed and well-organized set of organizations, including from groups like the Anti Defamation League who should be on their side, are just giddy with glee at their ‘triumph.’ Get real, people.

So given that the arguments are pure bullshit, what is left? A metric fuckton of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, ignorance, right-wing paranoia and dangerous idiocy, being fed and encouraged both by the entire right-wing in this country and enabled by the centrist bias in the media.

Let’s start with the first part. How do we know that these influences are at work? Well, it’s blindingly clear that their supposed arguments are absolutely worthless, which would seem to imply some sort of antipathy towards Muslims. But that’s silly, because it’s just about the symbolism of Ground Zero. Oh, wait. No it’s not. Tennessee, California, Wisconsin, California again. People are turning out in droves to opposed Muslim groups building places of worship or Islamic culture anywhere in their community. Sometimes they hide it in the transparently idiotic argument of traffic, and sometimes they don’t bother.

“Shelton was among several hundred demonstrators recently who wore "Vote for Jesus" T-shirts and carried signs that said: "No Sharia law for USA!," referring to the Islamic code of law.”

- Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Opponents worry it [a 25,000 square foot mosque] will turn the town into haven for Islamic extremists.

- Temecula, California

Anyone see something wrong with the first one? Vote for Jesus sounds a lot like a political message rather than a religious one, which is exactly what they’re accusing the Muslim groups of. Sometimes the Muslim centers are just bigger versions of those that were already there. A haven for Islamic extremists? What blatant idiocy and fear-mongering. And everything else I said before.

Here’s what’s up. Right-wingers feed into the paranoia and ignorance of their base in order to create issues where none exist. And that’s how we get the brilliant framing of the ‘Ground-Zero mosque” that drives the right into such a frenzy that they become incoherent. (Not that she wasn’t already). This is evil, disgusting and immoral, for the Muslims, for the possibly well-meaning protestors who are being pushed by groupthink further right/insane, and certainly for America at large.

Then the centrist bias comes in and says that this is a legitimate issue, that there actually is a debate here. “These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.” NO! No they do not! There is no debate here! We have a first amendment! We place value on acceptance and tolerance. We do not demonize and marginalize politically less powerful groups. Islam is not all the same. It is a religion that is not fundamentally at odds with American values or the Constitution. Most Muslims, like most Christians, most Jews and most atheists are entirely peaceful citizens. Quote-mining the Koran leaves open the very distinct possibility of opening the gates to a demonstration of all the horribly shameful and violent parts of the Torah and the Bible and any other holy book you want. And this is just the principled stuff. Empirically, most Muslims have committed no act of violence. They have been a part of American culture for decades. And also, mosques stop terrorism. So suck on that, idiots.

There is no debate. None whatsoever. This is blatant bigotry in its worst form, and should be fought at every turn. Muslims, like all other religious groups, are welcome to believe and practice as they wish. Those are the freedoms they hate us for, right? And as a constitutional right, no amount of popular opposition can undermine that. By the way, too, further marginalizing this population is a viciously unsuccessful way of breaking down the fear and resentment towards Muslims that have been present since 9/11.

Let’s get our heads on straight and fight for real American values (that happen to be basic human values), shall we?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Types of Freedom

Here’s a link about financial reform before the recent bill was passed, along with my commentary.

The first thing to notice is that the author is straightforward about literally wanting the banks to have less money. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, how do you democratically and morally take money away from banks in a way that evidence shows does the most good? It’s a hard question. I mean, certainly the idea that too much money = too much control over democracy certainly seems to make sense, both a priori and in looking at the state of this country. A recent conversation with a libertarian friend had him declaring that if government interfered less, businesses would have far less incentive to interfere at all. There are several problems with that, starting with the fact that special interest groups exist in order to ask for benefits even without precedent, and that businesses would always have incentives to buy out senators.

But, if we take that as a philosophical idea, here are my thoughts.

There are many types of freedoms. For example: economic, political and individual freedom. I thought, as a civil libertarian and socialist, I'd come to the conclusion that economic freedom is just different, it can be excluded in a way that the others can't. Perhaps because money breeds money, because the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, not shrinking, because without money people live on the streets and starve and die or because money has an undue influence on democracy.

But thinking about it now, that's not how it is. It's exactly the same as the others. In some cases you need negative freedoms, that is, the freedom to not be taxed to death, to not have to purchase something in particular from some place in particular, just as you need to be able to not be stopped from going where you like and saying what you like. But you also need positive freedoms, like the right to go vote, the positive participation in democracy. In economic terms, that might mean freedom from want, freedom from the fear and undue stress that comes from abject and even not so abject poverty.

Some things I've been reading recently have made me rethink my stance on what can be learned from the ever-feared socialist and otherwise repressive governments of the 20th century and their (I argue tenuous) connections to FDR and New Deal-style democracy. What role does economic freedom play? Is it that individual freedoms are great but must be put in the context of society? Is economic freedom fundamentally different? Si Kahn, famous community organizer during the civil rights movement, whose book, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, I think, really said it when he noted that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from the vast amount of totalitarian oppression and restriction of freedom in the 20th century. We learned that government was scary and bad. What we should have learned was that lots of things are scary and bad (Chomsky and Brandeis would say that big things are scary and bad) and that maybe we should look at what those are exactly and what institutions and resources we have in place at our disposal.

So we know that poverty and death and segregation and concentration camps and lack of security are bad. So we have corporations, who sometimes aid and fund all those things (if you think that I'm exaggerating, look at for-profit prisons), that we can ostensibly control using our money and our free choices. And we have governments, which often do all of those things, that we can supposedly control through the democratic process. We also know that when properly used, both can be forces for good. And what's really cool about being progressive, and thus following a consequentialist ethic in how we get to a freer, more egalitarian society, is you can say, well great, let's play these massive, ineradicable forces off against each other. So let's put in some laws that protect people (like FDIC and the Fed's emergency funds) but be sure that there are strict regulations (like Glass-Steagal/Volcker or all the regulation that Dick Cheney took away from oil drilling).

Then the corporations have less power and money to screw with democracy and hurt us. Because democracy is good, it's a positive right we have. And we, the people, are good, and ought not to be hurt. And then when government fails us, as it often does, and we note that democracy is standing in the way of democracy, then we do something else, maybe in the private sector, maybe through community organizing maybe through moving our money from big banks to community ones. Remember that the progressive way is to use things as a means to an end. Everyone, especially libertarians and tea partiers, learned the wrong lessons. Government really can work for us, and the political process is really important. But also, we can force big forces to work for us.

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions."
- Noam Chomsky

Or something like that.