For the past little while, Greta Christina and I have been having an e-mail discussion about a piece I wrote entitled “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression,” which some of you may have read. Greta took issue with some comments I made about the difference in scale I see between atheist oppression and that leveled against trans* and gender non-conforming folks. We have decided to take the conversation public, and I am incredibly grateful to Greta for how she has gone about this conversation; she is without question one of the best writers and people in this movement, and one of the reasons I write in the first place. I can’t properly express how flattered I am that she has taken the time to do this. You can read her first post in this series by following this link. What you will read below is my initial reply to her.
I’m still on vacation, enjoying not having deadlines or my future looming over my head, but I do want to take a break from my cocktails-and-home-cooking existence to say a quick something about the season we now find ourselves in.
Right now, I’m writing this from a chair in my mother’s house in West Hartford, Connecticut, which is pretty much exactly the bourgeois white peoplesville you think it is. I just took a 20 minute trip to pick up groceries, and everywhere there were people out shopping, because it is Black Friday, one of the ultimate consumerist holidays, where Americans move as one to go spend money on useless shit for Christmas, because the norms of our society have told them that is what they are supposed to do.
This post isn’t necessarily about Black Friday, or how awful it is. You already know all about that. I want to say a quick something about who is out there making sure you can buy your widgets and iThings.
Think about the last thing you bought at a store, or the last time you ate out or got a coffee. Do you remember the person who rang your order up? What they looked like? What their name was? What, if anything, you talked about? Do you remember anything about them whatsoever, other than that they facilitated your consumption?
Today, and even yesterday, thousands of workers are on the job, away from their families, denied any sort of holiday break whatsoever because there are millions of you who feel the primeval urge to get deals and buy things. Many of them are on strike today because they know that enough is enough.And they’re not just striking because of today. They’re striking because worker’s rights in our country are not-so-slowly being eradicated. Things that used to be guaranteed, like health insurance and other benefits are becoming things of the past.
In the restaurant industry, it is even worse. The people who are cooking and serving your food are working for some of the lowest wages in America, for which they pull insane hours with absolute no benefits, guaranteed vacations, or anything to lessen the burden. People working the line kill themselves for you, for strangers, not for a necessity, but because you decided that day you didn’t want to cook, or that you wanted to spend a bit of extra money to dress up and be seen at that new hot spot, to brag to your friends that you went there. And the kitchen staff carries on, at great personal cost, usually with no recognition whatsoever. The front of the house, the waiters and bartenders, have probably been on their feet for six or seven hours straight by the time you see them, making less than minimum wage, dependent on tips to survive.
Remember this whenever you go out to eat, or to a shop to buy clothes or groceries or whatever. The person helping you out, answering your silly questions, are having bad days. They are working their asses off for your pleasure, and that day they’ve probably sweated and bled more to do it than you ever have in your life. Check yourself, don’t get pissy that the place you’re eating doesn’t have exactly what you want, don’t make absurd demands on sales staff. You’re not helping. You’re being an asshole, and you need to stop.
So, this blogging every-to-near-every-day thing is something I’m committed to sticking to. However, it’s finals week at DePaul, and I’m leaving town in five days for some much needed relaxation with the family, so I’ll probably be a bit sporadic for a while. Have no fear, I will be back, because I have ALL of the things to write about!
Quelle horreur, man the battlements, remove your hats, and salute the casket: Captain America has fallen.
To the shock and dismay of every America lover out there, General David Petraeus, mastermind of the so-called “surge” tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan that let mainstream news watchers believe that America could triumph in the Middle East over those evil brown folk and still be the bestest country ever, and lately Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he oversaw the implementation of our shiny killer robots in countries where we’re not at war, has resigned from his post due to having an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, the author of his recent biography.
Now, I have no interest in the General’s infidelity. As long as it’s consensual, the dude can sleep with whomever he wants, and I won’t give a solitary damn. I’ll leave the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the supposed muddying of his sterling reputation to the prudes and flag-wavers who pop out of their holes every time a public official is revealed to be a horndog. Makes no never mind to me.
However, what does concern me are Petraeus’ worshipers in DC and elsewhere, who have rushed to the man’s defense. There is no doubt that despite his valorization by everyone and anyone who supports America spending hundreds of billions it does not have on useless foreign wars because it makes their members stand at attention, Petraeus holds a huge amount of responsibility for turning the CIA into a paramilitary force, not an intelligence agency, as well as continuing the US’ fights in Afghanistan and Iraq in secret, such that they are now the longest conflicts in American history. Despite this, cable news heads have in particular bent over backwards to defend the man; how he’s a West Point grad, military genius (because apparently simply pouring more soldiers into a battle and using extremely advanced technology to kill more or less indiscriminately is now apparently considered brainy strategy; Henry V would weep), and All-American Hero.
See, the fact of the matter just is that he is nothing of the sort. In fact, all he has proven in this scandal is how incredibly inept and blithely ignorant he is, fine qualities to be held by the top spy in the country. In a rare moment of clarity from Politico, Roger Simon points out the glaringly obvious in that David Petraeus, head of the most powerful intelligence agency on Planet Earth and formerly lord high muckety-muck of the most powerful army on the same world, thinks that Gmail accounts are secure enough so that he could send explicit e-mails to his secret lover. And not have them be traced. This kind of idiocy makes the chuckle brothers over at SkepticInk look like bloody Rhodes Scholars.
Nevertheless, he is continuously defended from all parts of the political establishment, especially by President Obama. However, as is so common in our times, any dissent from the hero message is being mercilessly mocked.
Now, I’m in no trouble because no one, outside of a very few lovely people, know who the hell I am. But, for others, it’s different. Take, for example, Michael Hastings, who is an actual journalist that still does those things like investigative reporting that most people at newsdesks these days seem to think are outdated. He has already been involved in the takedown of a major American general, this one being Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus’ predecessor in the Army. Since reporting actual news is tantamount to treason these days, Hastings is not a well-loved man at the desks of most mainstream news organizations. For instance, Dylan Byers, a Politico hack, who wrote a piece two days ago lampooning Hastings for, well, being a good journalist:
The third and final thing to know about Hastings is that he considers himself something of a gonzo journalist. His gut instinct is to cause trouble. At a time when the mainstream media seem more cautious than ever, that can be extremely refreshing. If you believe that journalists are supposed to call bull when they see it, then Hastings is your man. But to those who believe journalists shouldn’t be advocates — either out of ethical concerns or practical ones (it’s not always effective) — Hastings is muddying sacred waters.
Can you smell the self-righteousness? And also the deep aromas of self loathing? This shit is absolutely amazing.
In closing, the American tradition of hero worship for those in uniform is alive and well, even if the person being supplicated to has revealed himself to be a massive idiot and unfit for command of a commissary. And I admit, I have had a lot of snarky fun in writing this. Perhaps too much; I am, after all, losing my mind to finals week. But I can’t help but giggle with glee and schadenfreude at the fact that the head spy in the American government was brought down by the same kind of draconian invasions of privacy which have become de rigeur in the past decade. The romance, the justice to it, is just beautiful in every single way.
This is a thing bloggers do, right?
Chris Rodda talks about David Petraeus’ spiritual fitness, or lack thereof.
In that vein, Glenn Greenwald does his usual phenomenal job of pointing out what the real scandal in the Petraeus story is.
Relating in my mind to Rebecca Watson’s awesome talk on bad science at Skepticon, Zinnia Jones details a homophobic study on same-sex families.
The supremely awesome Sarah Moglia talks about chronic illness and how we discuss it in society.
Stephanie Zvan responds to James Croft’s talk at Skepticon on humanist gathering sites. (I plan on writing about this very soon).
Amanda Marcotte (who I met at Skepticon and squeed over and oh my god she’s amazing) talks about how the harassment policy at the conference was a huge boon to the experience.
Crommunist talks about how all racists have herpes. At least, that’s what I read into it.
Finally, this is just awesome.
This past weekend, I attended the Skepticon 5 conference in Springfield, Missouri with a large group of fellow atheists from Chicago. Despite a nine hour drive both ways, it was an absolute blast. The best thing about conferences for me is not necessarily the speakers on the docket, but getting to see friends that I usually don’t get to see at any other time. This movement has made it so I know people all across the country, and so only occasionally do we get to come together in the same place. Especially getting to hang out with Debbie Goddard and Ed Brayton was fantastic, as they are two of my favorite people in the entire world. For that reason alone, Skepticon was worth the effort. Also, getting to meet Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds was an enormous pleasure. Not only is she a wonderful writer and thinker, she is a really nice person, and spent a lot of time with Kate, Miriam, and myself.
However, as ever in the atheist movement, there were issues with the weekend. Many of them are summed up well by this blog post, though in terms of actual participation in the Friends Against Hunger event happening next door, Stephanie does contradict some of his claims. However, the starkness between the two events was definitely noticeable.
In my case, being one of them big city liberals and all, I did feel out of place to a certain extent in Springfield. It is a very small town by my standards, and was not exactly bustling aside from the 1,600 conference attendees; on Sunday morning, Kate and I found ourselves to be the only people walking around the downtown area because all the locals were in church. The morning before, on our way to a coffee shop nearby, we had to walk through a Veteran’s Day parade that was far more conspicuous for the number of Confederate flags on display than for its celebration of service. All around the area were buildings that were unoccupied, and appeared to have been so for a long time; it was a stark reminder that all is not well in our country, despite talk from the political establishment on how the economy is getting better.
The problem for me arose in the fact that the conference attendees did not exactly diverge much in appearance from the people waving the stars and bars. During the whole weekend, I remember seeing a grand total of seven people of color, one of whom was Debbie Goddard, there tabling for the Center for Inquiry, and two others, Tony Pinn and Hemant Mehta, were speakers.
Now, I know this con took place in a state not known for racial diversity. But the fact of the matter is that such a startling lack of it from a community like ours, which has been having this conversation for ages now, and from organizers as fantastic as those who run Skepticon, simply is not excusable. Particularly when Tony Pinn, a renowned scholar and excellent speaker to boot, was placed as the very last person on the schedule for the entire conference, at 5:30 on Sunday, by which most people, myself included, had left due to having finals the next day.* Add to the fact that he was speaking on diversity, which historically is the topic that speakers of color get pigeonholed into talking about above all else, the near-utter lack of non-white faces should be viewed as a true embarrassment to Skepticon.
I am not going to go on in this post and tell you all the reasons why diversity and concern with social justice should be important. I have talked about it plenty of times before. Many people more eloquent than I have talked about it at length. We as a community need to stop discussing diversity and start doing something about it.
*According to Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism, as well as Stephanie Zvan and Jesse Galef, Dr. Pinn had a scheduling conflict and that is why he was the last speaker, not because of the organizers’ planning. Noting this, I believe my critique still stands.
I’ve been involved since July with the two best atheists I know, Kate Donovan and Chana Messinger, in helping to organize Carl Sagan Day Chicago for the second year running. To all of our relative disbelief, it’s happening this Thursday!
We have an absolutely amazing program. Our speakers are:
Dr. Peter Vandervoort, Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and a former colleague of Carl Sagan.
Dr. Angela Olinto, Chair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, Associate Professor of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Studies Department at DePaul University.
Matt Lowry, the Skeptical Teacher, will be our emcee for the night.
… and apple pie, from scratch, will be served! We also have tickets to the Adler Planetarium, one of our cosponsors, to raffle off!
So, if you are able, come out to DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus on Thursday, and have an amazing experience!
In short, pretty goddamn awful.
A glowing green disc hovers high in the sky at night, casting an eerie glow over a forest of minarets, cranes and concrete frames that seem to stretch endlessly into the dusty distance, like a vast field of dominoes. The disc is the largest clockface in the world – and not only does it adorn the tallest clocktower in the world, it also sits atop a building boasting the biggest floor area in the world. Visible 30km away, this is the Abraj al-Bait, which rises like Big Ben on steroids to tower 600m over the holy mosque of Mecca in the spiritual heart of the Islamic world.
This thrusting pastiche palace houses an array of luxury hotels and apartments, perched above a five-storey slab of shopping malls. Completed last year at a cost of $15bn (£9bn), it stands where an Ottoman fortress once stood. A stone citadel built in 1781 to repel bandits, the Ajyad fortress’s demolition sparked an international outcry in 2002, but this was quickly rebuffed by the Saudi Islamic affairs minister. “No one has the right to interfere in what comes under the state’s authority,” he said. “This development is in the interest of all Muslims all over the world.” The fortress wasn’t just swept away – the hill it sat on went, too.
In short, the Saudi Arabian government, enlisting the Dar al Handash architectural firm, is tearing apart the ancient city of Mecca in the name of profit and capitalism.
My first thought; what must all those fearmongers who think Muslims are really scary must be thinking? Does Mitt Romney read this story, look in the mirror, and say, “Damn, they are just like us after all!”?
Well, the similarities are striking. History is being wiped away so that the government can charge obscene prices to stay in Mecca to overwhelmingly poor populations who come to the city for their hajj. In the process, they have been evicting residents of the old city, moving them to shantytowns, and not compensating them. The merchants who sold in the markets there now cannot afford rents. All of this is happening with the number of annual pilgrims expected to reach 17 million by 2025.
So, exploitation, shady dealings, and a lack of ethics, all in the name of turning a great city into a theme park. Sounds mighty familiar, as a New Yorker.
The death last week of George McGovern, the Congressman, Senator, Presidential candidate, and legendary American progressive, was a day that saddened me deeply. Not only because a great man had gone, but that he had gone with so little fanfare; outside of the better broadsheets and news websites, his passing was a footnote; not as the man who worked with every fiber of his being to end the Vietnam War, or the man who took presidential nominations out of the hands of party insiders, but as a failed Presidential candidate, and would-be target of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy.
The 24-hour news outlets have zero interest in replaying the story of McGovern as he actually was, because it is perceived that there is no audience for a man of McGovern’s supposed radicality. And that is because since Vietnam, the American Left has been dying a long, slow death, ever sliding further and further into disrepute, mediocrity, and irrelevance. With a very few exceptions, there are no progressives left in Congress; Bernie Sanders being the best known. Protests are now such a rarity that every left-leaning group possible attends, in a mixture of wanting to get their voices out, or just wanting to hang out; the dedicated activists of decades past have, in many ways, been supplanted by white kids with dreadlocks who are trying to be edgy, not actually seeking change. In all of its happenings, the Left appears disorganized and absurd; the Right has completely succeeded in making liberal activism an object of ridicule, not something that laypeople even pause for a moment to take seriously.
The problem seems intractable, particularly since there is no McGovern left in Congress, or with the support needed to be one. As mentioned, there are a few progressives, like Sanders, or Sherrod Brown, and there are a few running for office like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, but they aren’t able to do anything to create change because the rest of their party has run to the center right and into the arms of corporate donors, abandoning the people the Democratic Party used to serve; the working class, the laborers, the urban poor, i.e. Americans who aren’t in Mitt Romney’s Rolodex.
For example, this is a quote of McGovern’s from the debates in Congress over a bill to end the Vietnam War:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Can you imagine any sitting Congressperson or Senator saying anything half as blunt? Moreover, if they did, do you think that corporate-backed media would cover it? It’s unlikely, to say the least; at best, the pundits on CNN would probably wonder if the person saying it had been on the bourbon beforehand. Dissent is not seen as a positive anymore; it’s seen as a sign of madness.
This otherizing of any form of protest against American policy, especially foreign policy, is seen particularly when it is related to our current President. Four years ago, Barack Obama swept into office with a huge mandate, a friendly House and Senate, and proceeded to make a complete hash of it. The vast majority of progressive legislation that he proposed during his campaign failed to pass, but where he has succeeded is in making the “War on Terror” even more scary than it was under George Bush. As Glenn Greenwald has been reporting for years now, Obama is doing his damnedest to make his drone war permanent, a legacy to last him past the end of his probable second term, categorized as the incredibly creepy-sounding “disposition matrix,” or, more colloquially, the administration’s kill list:
The “disposition matrix” has been developed and will be overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). One of its purposes is “to augment” the “separate but overlapping kill lists” maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon: to serve, in other words, as the centralized clearinghouse for determining who will be executed without due process based upon how one fits into the executive branch’s “matrix”. As Miller describes it, it is “a single, continually evolving database” which includes “biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations” as well as “strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols”. This analytical system that determines people’s “disposition” will undoubtedly be kept completely secret; Marcy Wheeler sardonically said that she was “looking forward to the government’s arguments explaining why it won’t release the disposition matrix to ACLU under FOIA”.
This was all motivated by Obama’s refusal to arrest or detain terrorist suspects, and his resulting commitment simply to killing them at will (his will). Miller quotes “a former US counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix” as explaining the impetus behind the program this way: “We had a disposition problem.”
Not only has the supposed savior of the Democratic Party started killing people outright, without any due process, he has made it legal to not just spy on Americans deemed to have no links to terrorism, but to hold their information in databases for years, something the comically warmongering President Bush balked at. His drone campaign targets 16-year old boys, justified by adviser Robert Gibbs, who said it was okay to kill the boy because his father was a schmuck. Seriously. These are the people in charge of our government. Their policies, however, are only making our situation worse.
I understand why many, if not all, of you reading this will go on and vote for Barack Obama. Many people that I respect, like PZ Myers and JT Eberhard are resignedly voting for him, and encouraging others to do so, because Mitt Romney would be a catastrophe for this country. I get it. I do. He is better than Mitt Romney only by the skin of his teeth, only because he’s remained moderately left on most domestic policy issues. That’s it. Such is the state of our electoral system.
When you vote for him, I want you to remember that Barack Obama is a hair’s breath away from a catastrophe for the United States already. That is the plain and simple truth. Four more years of him is going to continue these authoritarian policies, just as much as they would under Romney.
In short, we need George McGovern now more than ever. We need, in the words of Duncan Campbell, who wrote in a touching tale of the man’s humanity to The Guardian, some bravery, decency, and compassion to return to the office of the Presidency.
Fresh off my last post on one of my academic majors, an article in the Wall Street Journal by famed critic Camille Paglia has sent me into a fresh case of umbrage regarding art history. Basically, this article is like a shooting gallery tailor-made for me.
Paglia, renowned for her being the biggest feminist poser in the business, writes that visual art has failed in the face of the iPhone generation, and that the fine arts’ resurrection will come through capitalism. She makes her case, first, with the example of architecture:
…work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
She is right, in part. Architecture as an industry is absolutely booming right now, and there is some staggeringly beautiful work being done right now. For instance, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua apartment building opened in Chicago recently, and it is a truly amazing skyscraper, unlike anything else on the city’s skyline. It was designed floor-by-floor, with unique plans for each story, based on environmental conditions at each specific altitude, and a general dedication to sustainability in its whole conception. It’s a revolutionary approach to architecture, and should be celebrated.
However, Aqua is still not exactly a building for everyone. Nor, really, are any of the starchitect’s projects that she mentions. To live in Aqua, you’re going to be paying anywhere from $299,000 to $3,000,000. It’s not doing a whole lot of good for anyone outside Paglia’s cherished capitalist upperclass, and that is the fundamental problem of architecture. As best laid out by scholar Margaret Crawford in her article “Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?”, it is, as the system currently functions, it is impossible for architects to be truly social justice minded, for in order to build on any sort of scale, huge amounts of money are required. So, yes, Paglia is right that there’s lots of cool architecture, thanks to capitalism, but, as we will see below, her admittance of this is the first of so many convoluted contradictions in this piece, in her name-dropping of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan; a white, rich, privileged man who wrote extensively on social architecture theory who only built buildings for the rich and powerful.
She goes on to talk more in-depth about the visual arts:
Today’s blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege. This trend began over two decades ago with Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine, and was typified more recently by Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” a life-size nude statue of the crucified Christ sculpted from chocolate, intended for a street-level gallery window in Manhattan during Holy Week. However, museums and galleries would never tolerate equally satirical treatment of Judaism or Islam.
It’s high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who incorporated into his art all the gaudy commercial imagery of capitalism (like Campbell’s soup cans) that most artists had stubbornly scorned.
The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century. Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today’s college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship.
Essentially, her main point is that the decline of industrial America, and the supposed lack of artists rising from working class backgrounds is killing the visual arts, that young people have to be “rescued” from their “sanitized, middle-class backgrounds. Apparently, these sanitized backgrounds lead to icky art like Serrano’s. I’ve re-read this piece several times now, and no, I still don’t understand the connection.
Furthermore, her point of “college-bound young people,” presumably future artists, have no relation to manual labor is not only ridiculous, but betrays her capitalistic removal from reality. The fact that college-bound young people don’t have to do manual work in factories and such is directly related to their acceptance into colleges; that being that these are children whose parents can afford to send them to universities. Kids of working class parentage most often cannot afford university, so go into the sectors where college degrees are not required, sectors wherein capitalistic exploitation of labor and outsourcing has minimized the industries to an absolutely enormous degree. Her solution is the problem.
As a case in point, she claims that there have been no truly big art names to emerge since the 70s, with Minimalism and Pop Art. This, quite frankly, is not true; Damien Hirst came up with the Young British Artists in the late 80s-early 90s, and proceeded to take the entire art world by storm. His pieces sell for tens of millions of dollars, the absolute epitome of Ms. Paglia’s capitalist dream and, for the most part, are terrible. Banksy, too, is another example of this, but in a very different way; he never designed his graffiti work for consumer consumption, but instead his work as been coopted onto t-shirts and internet sites everywhere, and as such is now the artist every middle-class person likes to namecheck in order to prove they know something about contemporary art. Hirst and Banksy are only the two most famous examples; to say that the art world hasn’t had any “big names” is ridiculous and completely false.
But beyond them, there are many, many brilliant contemporary artists working in visual mediums today. Take a look sometime at Davis/Langlois, or Nick Cave, or Carrie Mae Weems, or Juan Angel Chavez. These are just the artists I know of most closely, from my work at the DePaul Art Museum. One of the many, many problems of the current art world, particularly in Chicago, is that the artists working now aren’t celebrated. They can, and should be, and deserve investigation.
In conclusion, it seems that for a critic of Ms. Paglia’s stature, she apparently hasn’t read any art history. At least, not outside of the mainstream canonical omnibuses. This is the only conclusion to be reached from reading this article of hers, for the only way such a bogus conclusion could be reached is through lack of proper investigation. So, just like a capitalist, then.