SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

As most of you hopefully know, it’s SSA Week!

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Why is SSA Week so important? Ed Brayton has the best lowdown, in my opinion:

First, because of their incredible success and growth. The public schools have long been home to thousands and thousands of Christian student groups, from Bible clubs to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, providing friendship and community to their members. Secular students need that kind of community even more given the generally hostile attitude toward atheists, agnostics and humanists. It can feel pretty lonely being non-Christian in this society, especially as a teenager.

SSA is building the next generation of leaders for this movement. I speak to SSA clubs regularly and I am always encouraged to see so many bright and engaged young people. I see people like Jessica, Harrison Hopkins, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan, Ellen Lundgren, Monica Harmsen, Hassan Kalifeh, Gordon Maples and many others as being groomed for future leadership positions and I am greatly encouraged. I hope you are too.

I’m not even offended that Ed didn’t mention me by name. Harrumph, etc.

Seriously, though, the SSA is a phenomenal organization, and the great people who work there and at CFI on Campus, especially Lyz Liddell, Sarah Moglia, and Debbie Goddard, have been huge influences on me over the past four years and have enabled me to learn how to be a good activist and organizer. Without them, my time as President of DAFT would have been much less fun.

Speaking of which, my time as El Presidente is rapidly coming to an end. Given what the job market is like, I have no idea what my future in the secular movement looks like; I’d love to get a job in it and work there, but whether that happens or not is up in the air. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep supporting the SSA, and CFI, because I owe them massively for making my life more fun and more meaningful, and there are far too many students and activists across the country to name who can say the same.

In which we play with puppies...

Last year, Chana and I played with puppies for SSA Week. It was the best.

I’m not sure if I can blogathon for SSA Week like I did last year, because blogging time is a thing I have so very little of any more, but definitely make sure to check out all the other things that other writers are doing for the week. And, if you can, please throw a few bucks their way. They’ll put it to good use!

A Rare Sighting of Links in the Wild

Well, I haven’t done this in ages, have I?

… yes, I know, I haven’t done blogging period in ages. I’m sorry! My thesis and various dead philosophers and art theorists are eating my life. But I’m still here, in fits and starts.

Tiger Beatdown takes on neoliberal feminism of the “Lean In” variety:

In instances of cultural hegemony a ruling class imposes their beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, etc so that these values and beliefs become the cultural norm. In this cultural hegemony that has become neoliberal feminism, there is no place for diversity of representation, diversity of models of organization or acceptance of difference. In order to belong, we should be in the business of maximizing our own value instead of “bullying for inclusion”. After all, if we just re-brand ourselves, the market should take care of the rest. This is what Lean and Mean feminism looks like.

Cori Mattli does an utterly fantastic job of depicting the revolutions in thought and consciousness that happen along many of our journeys as feminists:

And then one night, there is a dinner and discussion at your house–a class project about immigration and the media. You arrange copies of magazine covers, like place mats, on the dining room table for discussion–they show Latino people, the shadows of their eyes dark. The illustrated faces squished into hard stares and grimaces. Their creators, through ink and gloss, try to communicate to you (you young white American woman you) that these faces wish you harm. You think that this sort of media does not affect you.

At dinner, you stumble and you choke over words. Institutional racism isn’t something you’ve been asked to talk about before. This is your house, but you feel not at home. These are not my stories, you think. A smart, eloquent Latina student takes hold of the conversation. Her voice booms. She talks about her family. She talks about her studies in unfair, racist immigration policies. You are happy just to listen. You realize there is much to learn from just listening. But, you also notice the white people in the room–they are looking at their shoes and in unison, they breathe a deep grateful sigh.

Jon Huntsman is not the role model the GOP is looking for, says Paul Fidalgo:

I understand realpolitick. I understand that a shot at the presidency is the rarest of opportunities, and as Obama himself shows, you have to move with speed and blind determination if you ever hope to seize that opportunity. I think it’s pretty clear Huntsman won’t have another realistic shot. He perceived (correctly) that 2012 would be it for him, and he acted on it. I get it.

But then, you don’t take the job of being the embodiment of a president’s policy in a foreign country when you’re simultaneously plotting to politically undermine him. Erickson is right: Huntsman should have satisfied his ambition at the expense of something other than his commitment to the United States.

James Croft writes on the exclusion of atheists and humanists from the Boston bombing services, and makes a great argument for why we would want to be included:

Like the dogmatic religious communities we define ourselves against we, I am sad to say, have our little idols, our shibboleths which cannot be questioned. At the moment, our commitment to secularism and our obsession with not being religious has become something of an idol: all other ethical considerations must bow to the questions “How does this affect separation of church and state?” and “If we do this (sing together, light a candle, express our values passionately, encourage other people to be Humanists, speak at an interfaith event) will anyone think we are religious?”

Finally, Olivia says something I’ve been trying to talk about for ages, but does it infinitely better than I:

Truth often can contribute to our happiness. It is hard to be happy if we are basing our happiness on a lie or on delusion, because those things can fall apart and leave us incredibly unhappy. However this does not mean that we need to ruthlessly pursue truth. It means that in the important aspects of our lives, we should try to base our values and actions on truth. Truth can also make us incredibly unhappy, as can the search for truth. I know many people, myself included, who are almost haunted by the need for certainty and truth, and who are truly disturbed by the lack of purpose in our lives. If I look at all the facts, that is the most true conclusion that I find: that there is no purpose in my life. This has led to some serious emotional and mental problems for me. The idea that it’s more important for me to be close to that truth and hold that truth than it is for me to deal with my depression or recover from my eating disorder is ridiculous to me. Whether I have a certain purpose or not doesn’t truly affect how I should act and the efficacy of my actions in the here and now. It is pursuing truth too far, to the point where it becomes removed from my life and simply becomes an intellectual exercise that is causing me misery. So for now, I choose to ignore that truth and focus on different truths.

Real World Activism At Its Finest

A few weeks ago, I attended the inaugural iteration of the SkepTech conference, put on by a bunch of really awesome people up in Minneapolis. While I mostly went because I wanted to see old friends from far-flung places, and meet new ones (including that lovable scamp Jason Thibeault), I was also on a panel with JT Eberhard, Brianne Bilyeu, Miri Mogilevsky, and Olivia James on activism. You can see it below:

There’s a lot more to be said about activism as an enterprise than we managed to get to. Me, I’m definitely the most radically-minded of the people on that panel; as readers of mine will know, I don’t exactly hold much “typical” activism, like American Atheists billboards, in very high regard. But, rather than wax social justicey on what I think activism should be, I want to share this campaign from the Crunk Feminist Collective [emphasis mine]:

There are some places where people are warned never to go, known for violence, drug traffic, and poverty.  For those who have not grown up in these environments we are taught to fear and/or condemn people who live there.  This is not true of everyone.  There are some s/heroes who “see the faces at the bottom of the well,” and offer a rope AND a bucket of food and water.  Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) is the rescue organization where prevention is key and care is unconditional.  This week the CFC will spotlight AHRC because they need our support to keep their doors open.

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Atlanta Harm Reduction offers the only consistent syringe exchange program in the southeast region.  According to Mona Phillips, a founding member, their early advocacy work began with people living with HIV/AIDS.  During direct action campaigns to raise awareness about Atlantans needing access to affordable pharmaceutical drugs in 1996 they started seeing syringes on the ground.  Recognizing this marker to mean resurgence in heroin use they literally followed the syringes and the word on the street to English Avenue and set up shop there.

AHR has been in English Avenue since 1998 providing: FREE HIV testing, counseling, and connection with additional resources; FREE meals and hot showers a few days a week; FREE access computers and internet; FREE clothes closet access; FREE counseling for people with addictions; FREE Hepatitis A and B vaccines; FREE drug paraphernalia to stop the spread of AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C; FREE condoms and counseling for sex workers everyday. The syringe exchange program, assumed to target people who use recreational drugs only, is also important for people with diabetes to inject insulin as well as transgender people for hormone injections.

Where others choose to avoid the basic needs of so many people in this area because they don’t approve of their choices…Atlanta Harm Reduction rushed in.

In my mind, AHRC is an example of the absolute best kind of activism. People are volunteering their time to help those for whom there is no other help, working to empower the people with the least amount of power in our society. It’s not some blue-chip non-profit empire with flashy commercials and feel-good messages, but an actual sustained campaign to do good by providing direct assistance to those who need it most.

This is the kind of thing there needs to be more of. If you can, please shoot them a few dollars by going to their website, or if you live in or around Atlanta, volunteer with their program. It’s the things like this that make the biggest difference.

Eichmann in Boston

This quarter, for my senior capstone class, i.e. the class taken for a major that is supposed to cap off our undergraduate studies, I am taking a course focused on Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, with the truly excellent Peg Birmingham, who has been one of my most important instructors during my time at DePaul. In our analysis of it, it has brought to my mind many stark lessons for our current predicaments.

We started our examination of Arendt’s works by reading Eichmann in Jerusalemthe book she wrote and compiled from her time sitting in on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who more or less facilitated the extermination of the European Jews by the Third Reich and who was captured, tried, and put to death by Israel in the early 1960s. Most of the book is concerned with the details of the trial, and the testimony of Eichmann and others, but on the whole Arendt attempts to use the man to assess the phenomenon of the Holocaust itself, namely the complete and utter moral collapse of the nations involved, and also what she refers to as the “banality of evil,” the thoughtlessness of Eichmann in his charge to fulfill the duty given to him.

The chilling aspect of the trial for Arendt, and for those who read her recounting of it, is not that Eichmann was some evil ghoul, maniacally bent on the destruction of a people, but in fact something quite different; the man was no such thing. He was not psychologically unhinged in any way; he described himself as doing his duty, having no ability to stop the horrors of the Nazi regime, and so instead he did as he was ordered, because he believed that doing so was the truly moral thing to do, going so far as to cite Kant’s categorical imperative as his driving ideal. He admitted no guilt, no antisemitism, and seems to have at least been not guilty of the latter.

What, then, are we to make of Eichmann? He was not a monster, as is evident from reading Arendt’s account; but surely we should not exonerate him, as well. The message of his trial is that monstrous evil does not necessarily only come from the diabolical mastermind, bent on the destruction of all that is good and pure in the world, but instead that evil is easily done by those who are joiners, those who do not question orders, those who are too apathetic to care about what acts they commit or  enable, so long as they think it is correct, though that authority they believe may be a corrupt one. Moral collapse of the sort seen on the scale of the Holocaust is not, as we believe, an extraordinary thing, but rather one that can occur at any time, if, like Eichmann, we allow ourselves be the dupes of power, if we are not skeptical enough to question governments and ethical enough to make the right decisions.

The banality of evil can be seen today. We in the US have spent the past decade or so, if not more, watching our own government commit exceedingly immoral acts in the name of national security, while riling the population up into a fever over anyone who happens to fit the stereotype of being Muslim. It’s happening right now, in the aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Long before suspects were identified by authorities, the media and average citizens leapt to conclusions, immediately assuming Saudis and anyone else who was mildly Middle Eastern looking to be the culprits; such reactions are catalogued here and here, amongst other places.

This attitude, the assumptions of guilt, are exactly what Arendt warned us against. But she also offered us a brighter truth; that against all of the horror of the Nazi war machine, there were those that resisted, such as the actions of the state of Denmark to save its Jewish citizens and refugees from the Einsatzgruppen, as well as those of Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht who saved 250 Jewish people from the concentration camps. There are always those who make the moral choice, not the practical choice of saving their own skins, when the greatest adversity comes. Patton Oswalt wrote much in the same vein in the response to Boston.

It is in these stories that we must take hope from, and from the banality of evil, of the prejudiced assumptions, that we must constantly be on guard from. Our society has the capability to lapse into abjection and horror at any moment, if it has not already. We have stood by while innocent people have been illegally imprisoned by the people we elect to govern us, we have raised barely a peep against drone strikes on innocent civilians, and plenty of other moral lapses; as difficult as it is to do, we must look at ourselves, and constantly check our biases and actions. Ideology is what makes us blind, and so, we must do our utmost to not blindly follow ideology.

The Racist Nature of Critiques of Islamic Culture

There’s something that just has not managed to permeate the collective skulls of Western discourse, and by extension the atheist community. This something is second nature, an obvious sense, for anyone who takes part in or is schooled by radical progressive social movements. That thing is the nature of how racism works. And honestly, in this post, I don’t have a lot new to add to this conversation if you’re a regular reader of Crommunist’s, or of Crunk Feminists or the many many awesome bloggers who focus on racism out there. My only goal here is to tackle this beast that continually dogs atheists, and that they refuse to engage with in a really childish way: Islamophobia.

The particular strand of Islamophobia I’m going to talk about here is the sort that is directed from the atheist movement by its leading lights; for ten years now, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, and plenty of others have reserved their best vitriol for anything associated with Islam. They attack it and its followers in a way they don’t attack Christianity or Judaism or any other faith; they declare Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” use words like barbaric , warlike, savage, words that generally evoke images of medieval warfare and pagan blood rites, terminology more akin to hordes of orcs than human beings who worship a certain way. And it’s not just Dawkins et al who do this; when pretty much anyone writes about Islam in Western media, it is always accompanied with these dehumanizing terms. The same cannot be said of when they write about creationists.

First of all, I want to make a claim that will already put most people who read this post into a spluttering rage: Islamophobia is a thing that exists. Just as much as any other phobia, i.e. an irrational fear, can exist. Saying that irrational fear of Islam does not exist, as some have done, is to ignore evidence and common sense in the same way that creationists poo-poo evolutionary theory. So, for those of us who accept that there are those who blindly hate and fear Muslims, we can pillory those who deny it, and furthermore engage in noxious attacks on the Muslim world at large, in the same way PZ Myers attacks fundamentalists. In fact, it’s rather poetic that we can do it in his way, since he’s one of the ones who routinely denies Islamophobic attacks.

Frankly, whenever it happens, what springs to mind for me when I read these posts is the old literature about blacks; the great white intellectuals like Meiners and Kant who spoke of them as being human in form but animal in mind and other pseudoscientific tropes. Blacks were cast as barbarians, less-evolved beings from “the dark continent” who were not true human beings because they had not been the beneficiaries of white knowledge and learning. The same is now done in our modern society to Muslims. Since 9/11, we’ve been taught by the government and the media to fear not just Islam as an idea, but anyone who “looks Muslim;” as such, stories of suspicion, discrimination, and violence against American Muslims and those who are not Muslim but look like they might be are legion.

Think back to the manufactured uproar around the Park51 community center that an Islamic group wanted to build near the site of Ground Zero in 2010. Hysterical newscasters and pundits declared that this place was going to become a terrorist training camp, with tiny children working the monkey bars and firing AK-47′s, young minds formed by wicked imams to become the Battery Park Taliban. Sam Harris, ever the neocon, was right there, speaking out against it, raving about how it would be seen as a conquering moment for Islamic terrorists. But it isn’t. It’s a JCC run by people with Middle Eastern-sounding names who happen to think a seventh-century political leader was pretty cool. Divine, even. The controversy was a manufactured one, based on cultural stigma and racism, nothing that was substantive in any way.

Now, I don’t mean to discount the fact that there are Islamic terrorists who do terrible things. Obviously, there are. But they are often cast as being the only terrorists, or the most evil and dangerous, when plenty of white Christians are committing terrorist attacks; Anders Breivik, Wade Michael Page, and Adam Lanza’s atrocities are not couched in the same kind of racial, imperialist language as are Muslim attacks. The epidemic of sexual violence against women and killings of trans* people in the United States isn’t acknowledged by these thinkers, but they practically froth at the mouth over honor killings and veils in the Middle East. Nathan Lean made this point as well in a recent piece for Salon:

Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”

Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”

I don’t know if these people are truly racist or not. They and their fanboys certainly don’t think that they are. But they exhibit a strong pattern of critique that is based on racist and imperialist assumptions of Muslims and their society, not on the substantive fact that this violence of the sort they pin on Islam is systemic and permeates every single group of people on this planet. Honor killings and beatings of wives and daughters is not an exclusively Muslim practice: it happens everywhere. Terrorism is not a Muslim invention; it comes from everywhere. They only critique patriarchy and violence when it involves Muslims, and ignore it elsewhere; their rhetoric smacks of opportunism, not of real concern.

Dawkins, Harris, and all the others who continuously pick out Islam as the world’s one true problem need to think bigger, and need to realize their own innate prejudices. Their critiques are not fair, and they are not rational; they are attacking a certain pattern of behavior and attributing it to one extremely oppressed and marginalized group of people, and seem to have blinders on to the same behavior when it involves white, “civilized” people. That is racist. That is bigoted. That is lazy thinking. We can, and should, critique Islam without bowing to these kind of tropes.

I’m Going to SkepTech!

In a continuing effort to get my brain back on track, I’ve just returned from an awesome week or so away, where I saw a ton of friends old and new, had some truly fascinating and invigorating conversations, and drank a bit of beer. By a bit, I mean a lot.

I also was completely beguiled by Boston. I just don’t understand how it operates. It’s got no reason to how it is laid out. And all the trains are from the 1940s. I was half expecting to be asked whether I wanted to buy bonds for the war effort. But I had fun, nonetheless.

I’m back in Chicago now for a whole three days before I take off this weekend for what promises to be a truly awesome conference up in Minneapolis called SkepTech. Here are a few things about it, from the organizers:

1) What is SkepTech?

SkepTech is a mix of two words “Skepticism” (A disposition of systematic doubt) and “Technology” (The practical application of knowledge). In other words, our conference is all about the relationship between critical thinking and innovation.

2) What makes this conference important?

This conference is led by two campus skeptical groups – Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists at the University of Minnesota (CASH), and the Secular Student Alliance Afilliate at St. Cloud State University (SSA@SCSU). As skeptics, we see systematic doubt as an essential tool in improving our world.

There are plenty of conferences out there that demonstrate new technology. There are plenty of conferences out there that go after superstition and dogma. Our conference is different in that our desire is focused. Above all else we want to promote fact checking as an essential tool for scientific, technological, and humanitarian progress.

3) What are the goals for this conference?

To give our community a unique look at the role of critical thinking in the sciences
To explore new ways of using technology to overcome social problems
To teach people how to use the internet to challenge ideas effectively
To have ridiculous amounts of fun.

In addition to featuring lots of fabulous speakers like Greta Christina, Brianne Bilyeu, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, and Jesse Galef, I’ll be on a panel on Sunday with JT, Brianne, and Miri Mogilevsky on Internet vs. Real World Activism. Its prompt is this:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

If you know me or have been reading this blog, you know this is a thing that I have Lots Of Feelings about. So, it should be a very interesting discussion.

I hope to see you there, and look out for  a return to normal-ish service here by next week.

What’s Going On With Me

Hello all.

I haven’t been posting a lot recently, and that’s been mostly down to my completely packed class/work/organizing schedule, which thankfully will be ending in two weeks. The problem hasn’t so much been workload, which is honestly pretty light compared to other quarters I’ve had, but it’s been work that has been so basic that it completely turns me off. I know it sounds pretentious and all that, but when I’m not doing work that interests me, my brain can kind of turn off with it. So, doing all this make-work stresses me out, and I spend so much time doing it (because a lot of it is math, and math makes me panic) that I end up being too stressed to blog. It’s a vicious cycle.

Furthermore, when I’m too stressed to blog, I get stressed by the fact that I’m not blogging. I can’t think of what to write about, or I have an idea but worry that my idea is too similar to other people’s writing. Basically, my brain is very good at finding ways to suck.

It’s apathy of a sort, in that I think in the fear of failing, or being repetitive, or simply piling on to this discussion or another rather than adding to it substantively, my brain convinces itself that it’d just rather do nothing at all, and we should really watch that episode of Eureka or play FIFA for a while rather than try to write. That’ll de-stress you, I think, you can write after you just turn off your brain for a while. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it’s the latter, it makes me feel even worse. And the cycle begins again.

The moral of the story is, while some of my pieces have gotten good play out in the interwebs, and the fact that last Friday I hosted a panel of some of my greatest intellectual heroes, a few of whom told me they found what I write to be very important, which was overwhelming to say the least, I’m still figuring out how the hell this whole blogging game works right now. And I don’t know if I’m going to figure it out any time soon, or if I ever will. But I do like doing it, a lot, and I like talking to you readers when you share my stuff or make comments on it. So, I’m hoping that after next week, when I’ll get to bid Chicago adieu for a week to go recharge my batteries in New York and Boston with friends old and new, I’ll be back on my game.

In the meantime, I’ll be locked up in my apartment, scribbling away about Aristotle and Agamben and Kristeva. C’est la vie.