A Response from the Good Mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Points on Reductionism

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

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

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

To quote again from Dan Fincke (emphasis mine):

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

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

Mei’s second point interests me most of all:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SSA Con was MAGICAL.

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

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

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

Until then, DANCE.

Privilege for Atheists: An Introductory Guide

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

TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of violence
I’m writing about this today because I think the atheist/skeptic/humanist/insert chosen descriptor here movement is way, way out of touch with the world.
This concept shouldn’t be too unfamiliar with any of you who read Ed’s blog, or many of the other great voices on FTB; this network has become the awesome place that it is because it is so incredibly diverse, that rather than the echo chamber (or, as Jamie Kilstein put it at the conference, third level of hell) that the Pharyngula comments have become, FTB bloggers may agree on certain issues a lot, but the perspectives are incredibly diverse. It’s not just scientists, but it’s anti-racist experts like Crommunist, trans* activists like Natalie Reed, sex-positive writers like Greta, and utter badasses like Sikivu Hutchinson who are creating the discourse.
This is not to suggest that science, separation of church and state, or other issues that have traditionally been what the movement has focused on are unimportant. However, in the following post, I want to posit that, ultimately, their privileged status needs to be seriously reexamined in the face of what is actually happening in the real world outside of the communities who care about science over everything else.
Now, it is impossible for me in the space of a 20 minute presentation or a blog post to present the entirety of institutionalized oppression and violence in any way that would properly describe it. So, I’m going to focus on two issues that I think are most prescient to the discussion relating to atheism: reductionism and privilege.
The first I originally did not intend on including in the presentation, at least not under that guise. However, after Dan Fincke outlined it during his Blogathon for SSA Week, I realized that it fit quite well into my framework. He said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those half dozen instances are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the avalanche of attacks on trans* people throughout the world, particularly against transwomen of color. A nationwide survey of bias-motivated violence against LGBT people from 1985 to 1998 by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that incidents targeting transgender people accounted for 20% of all murders and about 40% of all police-initiated violence. According to the same project, in 2010

44 percent of LGBTQH (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected) murder victims were trans women, and in 2009 trans women were 50 percent of murder victims. Yet trans people as a whole are only about 1 percent of the LGBTQH population. Trans women also more often experienced multiple forms of violence and more severe violence, as well as more police bias and violence.

Against all of these happenings, I really cannot get pissed off or self righteous about whether or not it says God on my money or not. When people are being murdered in America at higher rates than those in decades-long war zones, I have a lot of trouble caring about whether we have free will or if it’s all determined.
However, going back to what was said above about intersectionality, that does not mean that I am saying that those issues do not matter. I would rightly be ridiculed if I were to say that proper, rational education of our children did not matter, or that I did not think that our nation should be a secular one, free of the influence of regressive religious institutions. What I am saying here is that if we want to be a movement that is relevant, that is interested in making our country and world more rational, more reasonable, a place where all are equal, then we cannot say things like “atheism isn’t involved in social justice” or “our movement is only concerned with THESE issues; we should leave the others to the feminists/queers/socialists.” In order to solve the problems that we have traditionally been associated with, we have to tackle issues of violence against marginalized groups too. In order to be secular, we have to be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-every single aspect of oppression that plagues our society.

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

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