What We’re Talking About When We Talk About The Holocaust Memorial

I don’t have much more to add to the discussion around the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit against the state of Ohio’s planned Holocaust Memorial than what has already been said in many places. For background, as well as some truly excellent analysis, I will point you towards the two posts Dan Fincke wrote here and here, as well as James Croft’s post here and David Gorski’s post here.

All I have to say is this: The Holocaust, as we now call it, was the greatest single atrocity that has ever been committed in the whole of human history. This is a fact that is indisputable. However, I fear that over the course of the decades since it happened, it has become desensitized.

In my studies, the phrase often used in the case of the Holocaust is “man’s inhumanity to man.” It’s an apt one, I think, and applies not just to the slaughter of eleven million Jews, Roma, queer people, dissidents, and others, but to countless instances of horror and injustice that have been committed throughout the record of our history.

The key word there, I think is inhumanity. It seems a simple enough word, but it carries an enormity of import.


It carries within it everything that it means to betray and destroy what it means to be a human being. However cynical we might be, I think there’s an understanding that to be human, to live up to everything that we are, to fulfill the promise of being the only living organisms we are aware of that have thoughts, feelings, and consciences, there is a certain ethical demand placed upon us. To do no harm, to seek throughout our relatively short lives to make the world a better place not just for ourselves and for our friends, but for the whole of our species.

What the National Socialist Party did from the years 1933 through 1945 is the case study in what it means to be inhuman. Contrary to what pop history would have us believe, the Nazis were not to a person megalomaniacal supervillains bent upon the destruction of the planet. Most of them were average citizens, just as you and I are, who were swayed to believing in a cause, one which preyed upon the paranoia, insecurity, and trauma that plagued the German nation in the aftermath of the first World War, then the latest in a long line of wars to end all wars. Adolf Hitler brought to those citizens hope, self-determination, and a will to survive and succeed.

As we know now, and as plenty knew then, that promise was built on lies and scapegoating, disguising a racist, imperialist desire for power and domination. But, at the end of the day, even as mad as Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, and all the others were, the “Final Solution” was not the planned endgame of that regime. Indeed, there were several plans to rid Europe of the Jews before then, notably the Madagascar strategy. In the end, they created the killing camps not because it was what they wanted to do all along, but because it was the most expedient way to cover their tracks before the Allied invasion. It was not a plan borne of megalomania, but pragmatism, and was executed by mere pragmatists like Adolf Eichmann.

Expediency. Convenience. Pragmatism. These are the reasons why the eleven million were slaughtered. These are methods we use today for our own excuses. I don’t lay out this history to demystify the Holocaust, but to emphasize that it happened because, over the course of twelve years, a nation lost its way. It became inhuman. It became cold, and unfeeling. It’s a pattern of human behavior that occurs throughout history, from the oldest papyrus to the very hour in which I am writing this post.

I am not tarring the Freedom from Religion Foundation, or American Atheists, or anyone who supports their lawsuit with the same brush with which I have laid out the tiniest fraction of the history of the National Socialist Party. My only point here in writing this is to emphasize the immense historical gravity of the situation with which they have involved themselves.

The rise of National Socialism, resulting in the Final Solution and destruction of European Jewry is the most horrific thing to ever happen in our history. I think as a culture, we have forgotten this. But, when I think about it, I remember my uncle, Arthur Anderson.

My Uncle Arthur was an incredibly sweet, caring, charming, goofy man. He played the trombone, and did it very well, clocking time not just with the Salvation Army band in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, but with the likes of Glenn Miller and most of the other big names of that era. He died last year, but his memory will live long with me and my family. In my case, not just of how I knew him, but all of the things he never spoke of to me. Unless my dad had told us, I would never have known that during his service in the army during the second World War, Uncle Arthur was part of a unit that liberated one of the concentration camps. I would never have known because Arthur never, ever spoke of it. He couldn’t take any pride, or joy, in liberating those people interned there because of what he saw; the full, bare-faced sight of the ultimate terror that humans could inflict on one another.

This fact has stuck with me, through every World War II movie I ever watched or book about it I ever read. However, now living seventy years after it, when there are so few left living who remember it, I fear we are forgetting, or indeed have forgotten, the fullness of what exactly happened then. We are now, as a society, the same way as those who lived before the Holocaust were; without any idea that because it was pragmatic, our fellow human beings could exterminate eleven million people at the drop of a hat. Even though we know it happened, we cannot in any way comprehend what that means, what it would look like, what kind of effect it would have upon us. And this, I believe, is dangerous.

I cannot lay out the full horror and calculatedness of the Nazi regime in a blog post. But, this is the history that the FFRF and American Atheists are contending with when they challenge the Ohio Holocaust memorial, or indeed any other memorial dedicated to it. Their move smacks of callousness and historical illiteracy, and they do their supporters and everyone who lacks religion a disservice with their actions.

This lawsuit is callous, ignorant, and smacks of a desire for publicity rather than content. We must remember the Holocaust, and all of the people who died as a result of the inhumanity of a few ambitious dictators. To do otherwise is to beg for it to happen again, to forget just what we as a species are capable of doing to each other when it seems expedient.


Hannah Arendt vs. Philosophy

This is the second post in a series on the state of academic philosophy. For part one, click here.

Something is rotten in the state of philosophy. As I laid out in my previous post in this series, I believe that many corners of field have a superiority complex that asserts its inherent specialness, which ultimately translates in the need to withdraw from the world in order to think Very Important Thoughts. In this post, I’ll lay out Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on this, namely, on how this elitist attitude stems from the ancient Greek thinkers we are told to revere, most notably Plato.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt details what she sees as the “warfare” between thought and common sense as being indicative of the problem of the professional philosopher. She deems this man absent-minded, and foolish for having devoted “his entire life to thinking, thus monopolizing and raising to an absolute what is but one of the many human faculties.”1 This sort of absolutist application for Arendt is one that forces the philosopher to withdraw from the world, into invisible realms, where he ceases to deal with matters of that world; being a pure thinker means that one demeans practical solutions to problems, and thus disdains their abilities that do not coincide with thinking.

This high-mindedness results in a sort of class divide; the thinker begins to think himself at war with common sense out of some belief that there is a violent animus against his discipline. Arendt sees this conflict as being a desperate desire on the behalf of the thinker to return to Athens and be at the side of Socrates, for at that time, death meant the separation of the body and of the soul. The former would die, while the latter, containing the mind, might live on in a metaphysical wonderland. Were this to happen, our philosopher would finally, actually, be able to follow Plato’s directives about aiming oneself totally towards the Forms, those pure, unchallengeable, unchanging truths towards which every one of us is supposed to strive if our minds are truly open. Anyone who has even skimmed The Republic knows that what it describes is, in a nutshell, this sort of place. It does not seem so far fetched, I think, to believe in the capacity of professional philosophers to think this way, especially after four years in a department that dearly loves the thought of ancient Greece.

Along with this desire, there is for Arendt a sort of paranoia on the part of thinkers, who believe that at any moment, using any excuse, the great unwashed horde of common-sense adherents will come breaking down our doors and cart us off, for us truly intelligent few who follow the ways of philosophy must hold some threat to them if the parable of the Cave holds true. In all actuality, though, this is another dreamt-up bit of victimization; Arendt claims that, in fact, it is the other way around, for “it was the philosopher who of his own accord quitted the city of men and then told those he had left behind that, at best, they were deceived by the trust they put in their senses… when they should have been using their minds… they were content to be glutted like cattle.”2 Again, this class divide is raised; the many could never resemble a philosopher, it is true, says Arendt, but that is no justification for the persecution complex of a philosopher.

Thinkers do not live on the outskirts of society because they have been driven there by those who would disdain thought, but indeed it is the thinker who has willingly taken themselves away from those they deem unworthy of their great minds; indeed, Plato and his ideal city begin to sound positively Randian. And indeed, we cannot be too terribly cruel to those who would willingly withdraw from the world and then attempt to pass judgment on it; after all, when they abdicate the world of appearances, they forget how things work here. Naturally, they must begin to find those remaining there to be somewhat threatening. Really though, I must again use the word paranoia; it is the driving force behind most abandonments of society, and even moreso the catalyst for the idea that someone is coming to get you. I think Arendt sums this up quite nicely when she says that “[l]aughter rather than hostility is the natural reaction of the many to the philosopher’s preoccupation and the apparent uselessness of his concerns.”3

Arendt, then, is making an argument, essentially, that when philosophers remove themselves from the world, they are making a poor ethical choice. Instead of retiring into pure thought alone, Arendt argues that we must marry thought with action; the latter is not simply going outside and doing something. For Arendt, there are two features of action, the first of which we will consider is plurality. In the vita activa, when action occurs, it always means the birth of something new, and it entails taking the initiative and bringing something into the world; thus, action cannot be done without the presence of others, for to be in the world means to be amongst others of the human race, disproving Hegel’s assertion that to think is to act and thus putting paid to the reclusive philosophers mentioned above.4 Furthermore, this plurality means more than simply engaging with men and women, but also there is an inherent equality and distinctness to it; we all exist as members of the same species, and even though no two of us are exactly the same, we manage to live amongst each other and recognize one another’s humanity. We are able to begin this new thing, amongst our fellow people, because we also have freedom; not a flag-waving rah-rah-America sort of freedom, but the simple ability to create and enact something novel.

Throughout The Human Condition, Arendt frames her understanding of the topic within Greek notions of the political, namely the polis, or political city-state, in its sense as a public space that existed among the citizenry of a state. For her, “the polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.”5 Thus she comes to refer to this organization of citizens as the “space of appearance,” where men exist among one another for the express purpose of making themselves known, not simple everyday activities.

Since it has no real physical location, the space can be recreated at any time, so long as the participants are together and engage in action, but it is a frail space. Thus, it has to be continually worked to be preserved through action; this can be slow and deliberate, or fast and violent, but no matter the form it takes, the ability of people to work together for their public spaces is what power is. Unlike, for instance, Foucault, Arendt does not link power with violence; it is something that can only be exercised by many acting together for a common purpose. It is a purely human creation, and one that does not need to force others into agreement, but instead operates on mutual consent amongst all members of the space.  The implications for activism are apparent; indeed, it brings to mind the grassroots happenings that defined the Occupy Movement.

This is a formulation that demands involvement and critical thought, not simply a fad for a man desperate for identity to ascribe to. In Arendt’s theory of action, there is no room for apathy or non-involvement; thus, the thoughtlessness, the banality of evil, would not be able to exist at all. It is here where I think we can use Arendt’s thought as a framework not just for solving problems in philosophy, or some other academic discipline, but indeed for the general malaise that seems to have overtaken the West.

In the next post, I’ll use these frameworks in a more explicitly political way, and attempt to move forward in my search for what a truly ethical philosophical practice looks like.

1Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p. 80.

2Ibid., 81.

3Ibid., 82.

4Ibid., 91.

5The Human Condition, 198.

A History of Injustice: The Story of Bradley Manning

Since today is the day when the verdict in the case of Bradley Manning will be decided, I’m reposting an article I wrote in January of last year for In Our Words about Private Manning. You can find the original post here.

UPDATE: Private Manning has been convicted on 20 charges, not including aiding the enemy. For more, follow Kevin Gosztola and Alexa O’Brien on Twitter.

The case of Bradley Manning is the story of one of the greatest travesties of justice that has occurred in not just recent history, but arguably in the entire short history of the United States of America. A bold statement, I grant you, but one, I think, that bears out upon examination.

My posts for In Our Words tend to be, well, a bit flippant in nature, because of late I have been writing mostly about the Republican presidential nomination process, a spectacle that can, in my opinion, only really be covered with a degree of irreverence and incredulity. Today, I will not be my usual sarcastic self. Nothing about this story is laughable. This story does not have slapstick social conservatives flouting scientific fact or engaging in absurd casual racism. This story entails the worst of the worst that the United States of America stands for in the modern world. Most of you reading this, I think, know that it has been a very long time since this country’s government stood for liberty and justice for all, if in fact it ever did. By the time this piece is over, I intend, whether you have heard the specifics of this case or not, to feel violently ill. I intend to tear asunder any pretension of honorable conduct that our military brass, our elected officials, and the President himself have left. I want you to leave this piece behind so enraged that even the most pragmatic part of yourself cannot be reconciled to vote for President Obama or any Democrat who supports the kind of inhuman conduct that our government is currently perpetrating. I do not say this because of any arrogance on my behalf in regards to my writing ability; I believe simply that the facts of Private Bradley Manning’s ordeal are so sickening that there is no other logical conclusion that complete and total revulsion at our elected officials.

So who is this person who I am talking about? They were born Bradley Manning in 1987 in rural Oklahoma, to a Welsh mother and American father. Their fractious marriage led to Manning moving around a lot as a kid, from Oklahoma to Haverfordwest, Wales, and back again to Oklahoma. Being small and nerdy, along with which comes all of the mockery and ostracization with which many of us are probably familiar, Manning was often left to fend for themselves, which left them without much of a support group on which to fall back upon. The word from their hometown is that “[they were] too smart for [their] own good;” they always performed well at the science fair, played the saxophone, and traveled across the state as a member of the quiz team. Most notably, it seems, is their willingness to speak out on behalf of their own opinions:

“You would say something, and [they] would have an opinion, which was a little unusual for a middle school kid,” said Rick McCombs, currently the school principal, who was a high school history teacher and coach when Brad was in school. “Don’t get me wrong, we had the cut-ups and the clowns and the mean ones and the bullies and those kinds of things, but this young [person] actually kind of thought on [their] own.”

This ability to engage with their peers came abruptly to an end when Brian Manning left his wife. They became withdrawn, spending lots of time alone in front of a computer, in the days when the Internet was first emerging. They also began to question their sexual orientation, and as we all know, middle and high school are not good places for one to start announcing their differences. Denver Nicks relates something Manning did shortly before they and their mother left for Wales:

Amidst the disintegration of his family, pubescent Brad was coming to terms with his own sexuality. Shanée Watson recalls Brad gathering she and Jordan Davis near a tree at Jordan’s grandmother’s house to give them important news. Brad told them that he would very shortly be moving with his mom to Wales for high school. He also told his two best friends he was gay.

This moment warrants pause. Bradley Manning, still effectively a boy, had few friends, and his family had all but fallen apart. In a time before Facebook and sustained long-distance friendships, he was leaving his two best friends for what could easily have been the last time (for Shanée Watson, it was). He didn’t need to tell them he was gay in order to confess a hidden affection, to explain a behavior or even to allow his friends to know him better–in a short time he would be gone. And yet, presumably for no other reason than that he was who he was and wanted to live honestly in his own skin, he felt compelled, in a conservative, religious town, to confide in his friends that he was a homosexual. Not only must it have taken tremendous courage for such a young man, it displays a crucial aspect of Brad’s personality. As his Facebook profile still says today, “Take me for who I am, or face the consequences!”

Life did not get much better for them when they entered Tasker Milward School in Haverfordwest.

Former students at his school there, Tasker Milward, remembered Private Manning being teased for all sort of reasons. His American accent. His love of Dr Pepper. The amount of time he spent huddled before a computer.

“It was probably the worst experience anybody could go through,” said Rowan John, a former classmate who was openly gay in high school. “Being different like me, or Bradley, in the middle of nowhere is like going back in time to the Dark Ages.” And then, students began to suspect he was gay.

Sometimes, former classmates said, he reacted to the teasing by idly boasting about stealing other students’ girlfriends. At other times, he openly flirted with boys. Often, with only the slightest provocation, he would launch into fits of rage.

Meanwhile, their mother, Susan, had fallen deep into alcoholism and was barely functional. Manning was sent to live with his father, but it wasn’t long before they were thrown out, whether over their homosexuality or a fight with their stepmother is unclear. In any case they ended up with nowhere to sleep but the truck their father had given them, and they started wandering, from Tulsa to Chicago to Washington, D.C., and points in between. After finding some stability in the latter with his aunt, he eventually enlisted in the Army in October 2007, to get money for college, but more importantly, because he thought it was a good thing to do:

“I think he thought it would be incredibly interesting, and exciting,” Jordan Davis told me in an email. “He was proud of our successes as a country. He valued our freedom, but probably our economic freedom the most. I think he saw the US as a force for good in the world.”

But it wasn’t what Manning expected.

Bradley entered the Army with a plan. He was going to use the system and not vice versa. The Army would pay for college. He’d “get credentials so creepy conservatives can’t attack me.” But the Army had its own agenda. Bradley believed in the mission, but the Army seemed creepy to him, like a brainwashing cult intent on breaking him down, “correcting every eyetwitch,” he wrote. To begin, it set out to suppress his digital self. “the army took me, a web dev, threw me into a rigid schedule, removed me from my digital self,” he wrote to ZJ. “The army … threw me in the forests of Missouri for 10 weeks with an old M-16 Reagan-era load-­bearing equipment, and 50 twanging people hailing from places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi … joy,” he told ZJ, and later added, “what the hell did I put myself through?”

They managed to escape Army life for a while, and in Boston fell in with a group of hackers, where for the first time in a long time they managed to feel accepted. Manning met a person named Tyler, a musician and drag queen, and they had a brief but intense relationship, their first serious one with seemingly anyone; their breakup was yet another in a long line of abandonments for Manning.

At the same time, their Army career was not exactly stellar. He had arguments with superior officers and suffered frequent mood swings and outbursts, and thus was sent to a counselor. Despite that physician’s recommendation, he was sent to Iraq, and whatever optimism he had left about his mission was eradicated.

He soon found himself helping the Iraqi authorities detain civilians for distributing “anti-Iraqi literature”—which turned out to be an investigative report into financial corruption in their own government titled “Where does the money go?” The penalty for this “crime” in Iraq was not a slap on the wrist. Imprisonment and torture, as well as systematic abuse of prisoners, are widespread in the new Iraq. From the military’s own Sigacts (Significant Actions) reports, we have a multitude of credible accounts of Iraqi police and soldiers shooting prisoners, beating them to death, pulling out fingernails or teeth, cutting off fingers, burning with acid, torturing with electric shocks or the use of suffocation and various kinds of sexual abuse including sodomization with gun barrels and forcing prisoners to perform sexual acts on guards and each other.

Manning had more than adequate reason to be concerned about handing over Iraqi citizens for likely torture simply for producing pamphlets about corruption in a government notorious for its corruptness.

Like any good soldier, Manning immediately took these concerns up the chain of command. And how did his superiors respond? His commanding officer told him to “shut up” and get back to rounding up more prisoners for the Iraqi Federal Police to treat however they cared to.

Amongst these types of events, Manning once again began questioning their sexuality. You will have noticed throughout this piece that I have been referring to them using gender-neutral pronouns; this is because, in November of 2009, they reached out to a gender counselor in the States. In their communiques, Manning stated that they thought they were female:

In person, his gender was difficult to discern—he’d begun his transition as a teenager. “Bradley felt he was female,” the counselor told me. “He was very solid on that.” Quickly, their conversation shifted to the practicalities: How does someone transition from male to female? “He really wanted to do surgery,” the counselor recalled. “He was mostly afraid of being alone, being ostracized or somehow weird.” To the counselor, it was clear Manning was in crisis. “I feel like a monster,” he’d typed on his computer several times.

I have chosen to use neutral pronouns because I feel, as a writer who has no connection to Manning or their closest confidantes, I am in no position to judge their current mental state, a circumstance that I hope will become clear soon. I think, however, it is extremely important to note that the sources I have quoted in this piece, and in fact everything I have read about Manning, including in the independent media (for instance, in this segment on Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald, one of the most eloquent political writers in the world and one of Manning’s most unshakeable advocates) steadfastly use masculine pronouns in reference to them. That, I think, is unconscionable and shows a lack, though not a malicious one, of understanding of Manning and their experience.

From here, the story might sound more familiar to you. Manning came into contact with Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, and Adrian Lamo, a former hacker and, unbeknownst to Manning, an informant for the FBI. After long periods of encrypted communication, Manning decided that, after seeing veritable mountains of information of U.S. war crimes committed in the Middle East, the world had to know. Shortly before making contact with Lamo, they had been involved in an incident in which Manning punched a female colleague, and was due to be discharged for, officially, “adjustment disorder.” In reality, Manning claimed, it was due to his gender identity issues.

11:49:51 AM Manning: and i already got myself into minor trouble, revealing my uncertainty over my gender identity … which is causing me to lose this job … and putting me in an awkward limbo …

11:58:33 AM Manning: and little does anyone know, but among this “visible” mess, theres the mess i created that no-one knows about yet

12:15:11 PM Manning: hypothetical question: if you had free reign [sic] over classified networks for long periods of time … say, 8-9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do? …

Now, with nothing to lose, Manning wanted to act. And they barely broke a sweat getting the information.

It wasn’t even much of a hack, Manning told Lamo, according to the logs. The Army’s “infosec”—Manning used the military term for information security—was so sloppy that a lowly intel analyst could sift through the government’s most closely held secrets. “it was vulnerable as fuck,” he wrote to Lamo. Manning downloaded data onto a CD marked “Lady Gaga,” lip-syncing as he supposedly did his job: “pretty simple, and unglamorous,” he wrote. No one had ever taken note of him, and no one did now: “everyone just sat at their workstations … watching music ­videos / car chases / buildings exploding … and writing more stuff to CD/DVD.”

Amongst the items Manning uncovered was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack, in which the viewer sees through its crosshairs as it guns down a dozen people and injures several others. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists, the pilot having believed that the reporters’ camera was a rocket launcher. Assange would call the video “Collateral Murder.”

The Apache helicopter killings were “wrong,” he wrote to Lamo. But soon he embraced a broader principle: Open the drawers. “information should be free,” he told Lamo, reciting the hacker mantra. According to the chat logs, Manning said he leaked Iraq and Afghan war logs, reports on Guantánamo prisoners, and a cache of diplomatic secrets. “explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective,” Manning thought of himself as honorable, even heroic—“I guess I’m too idealistic,” he said. “i want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … ­because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” He hoped to provoke “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms … if not … then we’re doomed as a species.” He added a personal coda: “i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.”

Wikileaks published the Collateral Murder video on April 5th, 2010, and in July and October respectively, massive numbers of diplomatic cables relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. On May 25th, Adrian Lamo met with members of the FBI and showed them his chat logs with Manning. The next day, Bradley Manning was arrested. Wired Magazine, whose editor, Kevin Poulsen, had used Lamo as a source in the past, published only portions of the chat logs in June, which allowed Lamo and Poulsen, according to Glenn Greenwald, to “actively [shield] Poulsen’s longtime associate, Adrian Lamo—as well as government investigators—from having their claims about Manning’s statements scrutinized, and have enabled Lamo to drive much of the reporting of this story by spouting whatever he wants about Manning’s statements without any check.”

And herein, for me, lies the rub. Since their arrest, Manning has been held in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, during which they have been denied clothes, a tactic often used to degrade and humiliate prisoners, as was seen at Abu Ghraib. Manning released a letter from prison further detailing the abuses they underwent, including the confiscating of his glasses, without which they are essentially blind. It is a horrifying state of affairs in most cases, but must especially be so in the context of their issues with their own gender identity. They are not being charged with terrorism, much less are they Muslim, which in American military custody seem to be interchangeable. They are an American citizen, and yet they are being treated like an animal. Their treatment in prison has been so abhorrent, in fact, that Juan Mendez, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture has announced an investigation into it.

Given these circumstances, you might imagine that our President, and indeed our more civilized elected officials, might be up in arms about it. The sickening fact of the matter is that Barack Obama does not think that Manning’s treatment is problematic at all. Hillary Clinton called Manning’s actions “an attack on the international community” and seemed to be derisory of Manning’s sexuality. Juan Mendez has claimed since the announcement of the UN investigation that his efforts have been stifled by the US government. P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, was one of the very few people in government to speak up for Manning: he was forced out of his job by the administration. Other officials have called for Manning’s execution (and that of Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers and a Manning supporter) or just been silent on the matter.

If you do not believe this to be unconscionable in the worst way, then you might as well walk away from this post, and the label of progressive. Our government, our military, our entire society are culpable. Bradley Manning has been left behind by almost every person they have ever loved or cared about, by circumstance or by deliberate action. When they entered into the military, their last believed refuge for acceptance and purpose, they were derided and their health issues ignored, and their incompetence in securing computer systems and systematic committing of war crimes opened the door for Manning to make a positive moral decision, one that can not in any reasonable capacity be considered treason, the crime Manning is now accused of. The leaking of the Afghanistan and Iraq files were a proactive attempt to make our country more transparent, which has led to greater public oversight of government decisions, brought to light our government’s insane need to make everything classified (when the sitting President campaigned on the promise to make his administration transparent) and, it can be concluded, allowed, amongst many other events, for the eruption of the Arab Spring, thanks to documents relating to the United States’ cozy relationship with the Tunisian dictatorship and others in the leaked cables. Our government has enshrined indefinite detention as a primary policy, in not just Guantanamo Bay, the 10th anniversary of its opening just past, but across the globe in places like Bagram Air Force Base in Iraq.

No one who can honestly call themselves a progressive can possibly support Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any other member of government who supports these authoritarian and inhuman policies. There are many, many liberals, those in elected office who Glenn Greenwald documents, and those outside, that want to paper over Obama’s policies on this matter for a simple desire to retain power in November. They call it a “pragmatic choice,” because as bad as Obama is, the Republicans are worse. And maybe that’s true, but it does not excuse him, nor should it be an excuse to vote for him. In fact, as Greenwald points out, if Obama and his Department of Justice had their way, dozens of innocent detainees at Guantanamo would still be in prison, being tortured. That does not even mention the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed in our imperialist wars, which Obama has continued.

Bradley Manning currently faces a court-martial, for which they face 50 years or more in prison. By voting against the establishment, you can fulfill Amy Goodman’s prediction that history will look kindly on Bradley Manning, just as it has on Daniel Ellsberg, Cynthia Cooper, Thomas Drake, Coleen Rowley, Darren Vandeveld, Mordechai Vanunu, Mark Felt, Sherron Edwards, and numerous others. Informing the public of injustices committed by those in power should never be considered treasonous by any person who values equality and freedom.

I write this post not to free Bradley Manning, or soothe my own tortured conscience, but in the hope that it will have raised questions for you, the reader, that deeply trouble you. That sounds vicious, but the fact of the matter is that our government is perpetrating war crimes across the globe with no accountability. We can provide that accountability, with our voices and at the ballot box. I would urge you before you go to vote in November, or in the coming primaries, that you take a few minutes to find out what the candidates on your ballot stand for. And I hope that if they have spoken in favor of our nation’s campaign of terror, or have remained silent on the matter, that it will cause you to think twice about voting for them, and damn the “pragmatism.” Because at this moment in time, both sides of the aisle would rather make money off of our illegal wars than do the right thing. And if you don’t want the United States of America to stand for terror and torture, you will vote for a true progressive. They exist. You just have to look hard for them.

The Death of Socrates and the Apathy of Philosophy

What do we talk about when we speak of “facts?” For those involved or interested in scientific, or more broadly, empirically-rooted fields, it is a thing that is indisputable; for instance, that gravity is a force that exists that keeps each and every one of us, as well as all other material things, rooted to the surface of the planet Earth. In these cases, facts are things that have been rigorously tested and examined and been found overwhelmingly to be the case; to this, we bind facts with the necessity of being true; there is no such thing as a fact that is not also true. So, while it is a fact that gravity exists and affects all of us, it is not a fact that unicorns exist, for the former has more than ample evidence for its existence, and the latter does not.

In philosophy, though, unless a member of the field is an adherent of the Vienna Circle, we find it harder to discern truth than those I have just briefly described. Particularly when our discipline takes up questions of ethics and morality, truth becomes a thing that is ultimately near impossible to ascertain given the metrics and rubrics of the sciences. The history of philosophy is ultimately one of the evolution and debate between certain men (and, occasionally, like a desperately needed breath of fresh air, women) over how it is best to think, and then later based upon that thinking, act. We are incessantly concerned with the thoughts of those long dead and buried unlike almost any other discipline; departments across the globe make hiring decisions based upon whether one focuses upon Kant rather than Hume, Aristotle versus Cicero, or Heidegger as opposed to Carnap. How well one is deemed to understand the writings of those deemed important by some and worthless by others determines entire careers, and to publish a philosophical text means to ceaselessly call back to our forbears in order to legitimize our own claims.

Yet, this understanding that is so highly valued is a kind of knowledge that is scorned outright by many in the sciences; we engaged with philosophy necessarily must think in abstract, changeable, evolving manners that must essentially spit in the face of notions of what constitutes factuality. If one person declares x thing about a passage of Spinoza, another will eventually come along and argue that said passage actually says something quite different, and the argument over which is the truth of Spinoza’s writing will span centuries, and likely never end.

However, the one absolute, concrete thing that all philosophers seem to universally call back to as a justification for what they do is the death of Socrates. The event occupies a special place in our minds; it is given special emphasis in near all of our classes, a legendary event that cemented our discipline’s ethos for all time. The great one, the true instigator of it all, we are told, willingly committed suicide by hemlock in 399 BCE because he wished to die for his ideas, his ethics, his moral code. He could not bow to the indignities demanded by small-minded government, for to do so would as well kill him as would the poison he drank. Whether we are to compromise our very being or die, the tale of Socrates tells us, the proper path is to drink deep; this preserves us, for all time.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates.” 1787. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Since his death, times have changed drastically, and ultimately so has how philosophy goes about its way in the world. Our discipline is not particularly brave, and to claim that as a whole it ever was is questionable to say the least. Certainly, there are many philosophers who have famously fought against injustice and oppression, and have written books on the subject, but most of us are perfectly content to ignore the problems of the world, and make a life of inventing arguments as to why philosophy is special, existing outside the purview of the everyday, that only the most rarefied and excellent minds should ever be able to engage with us, and until the government comes breaking down department doors, we can safely ignore the affronts to free speech and human rights that occur all around us.

I recognize that this is a position that is, to say the least, controversial. And indeed, I should make clear that I personally do not oppose the ability of scholars to study things that are impractical and have little relevance for a wider community; were I to do so, I would be arguing essentially for the end of academia as it has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this paper, I’m not going to propose anything so drastic as that. In a series of posts to come, I will present a critique of philosophy that claims itself privileged, above the everyday, and argue for a sort of more ethical thinking that is tied with a realization of the necessity for action, a philosophy that is a part of, rather than a bystander, in the world.

Some Announcements

So, my plan to get back on a regular blogging schedule has taken an arrow to the knee, as my trusty laptop wasn’t so enthused about the idea/it just gave up after all the time I spent with it during finals. So, it’s going to be a little while before I’m writing properly again, but in the meantime, here are two things that have happened involving me that are cool!

First of all, I was asked to take part in the Atheist Voices YouTube series. I talked about what it was like forming DAFT, what the group stands for, and a whole lot more! Two of the videos are already up, and you can see them below.

Secondly, I’ve been asked to join More than Men, and I have accepted! As soon as my computer is back in working order, look for an intro post and a whole stream of radical progressive thoughts happening over there.

Till then!

Thoughts, Four Years Later

On Sunday, June 16th, I graduated from DePaul University, with bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and History of Art & Architecture.

It’s really, really intense to think about everything that’s happened in the past four years.

I spent my first year at the university not liking it very much. I was happy to finally be gone from Cincinnati, where I spent my middle and high school years, and finally getting the fresh start I had wanted for as long as I was there. That feeling wasn’t so much borne of animus against the people I knew in high school, though that was an aspect, but rather being able to escape the person I was then. I had not been well-liked, to say the least. I bet I’m still not held in high esteem by many of those folks, and I wouldn’t argue against them in terms of their assessments of my character. I was a pretty miserable person to be around, for a whole host of reasons, many of them stemming from my recovery from several rounds of intensive medical treatment regarding the brain tumor I had, but I don’t want that to be an excuse. I could and should have been a better friend, and a better student. Coming to Chicago meant that I could have that chance.

I like to think that I’ve taken that chance. Certainly, from my point of view, the past four years have been the absolute best years of my entire life. I have met the most amazing people, seen the most fabulous things, had experiences that are frankly so absurd that I never would have thought of them ever occurring beforehand, but now are time capsules to look back on and laugh at. I’ve had a few crushes, and now I can genuinely say that I am in love with a person whose wonderfulness I am staggered by each and every day.

I’ve learned. Shit, have I learned. I realize now that I came to Chicago as the very definition of someone who didn’t know a goddamn thing. But, through classes with utterly wonderful professors, and through the community of friends who welcomed me and shared with me their experiences and wisdom, I think I’m a far more compassionate, informed, active person.

However, much as I hope these things about myself are true, I don’t ultimately get to decide whether they are or not. I’m of the belief that whether or not I’ve grown as a person, whether I am worthy of the great friendship and care that I have been offered in this city and others, are to be judged by those that have made me who I am. To declare myself fleet and fancy-free, an activist, writer, friend, etc. worth listening would be the height of conceit.

This is a lesson I’ve learned through my friends, and in the pages of philosophical and historical texts, namely those of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, and Audre Lorde; we are constituted as people by our histories, by choices we have made or those that have been made for us, by those who we have interacted and chosen to learn from or otherwise. Had any small thing been changed in any part of our lives, we would be different. We are, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, condemned to sense; condemned, always, to exist as beings in the world.

This is, I think, the most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my life. We can’t escape our history, but we can work to be better people on account of it. We do that by being willing to listen, being willing to question not just ourselves, but the world itself, especially the information given to us from those who social norms would have us believe are our betters. This kind of engagement takes all kinds of forms, but it is essential to our very humanity.

I believe I have been made a better person by Kate, and by Danielle, and Miri, and Steve, and Tyler, and Amanda, and Simone, and Professor Chanter, and Lyz Liddell, and Debbie Goddard, and countless numbers of people who I simply cannot name here for lack of space. Being able to meet all of these people, and to be changed by them, is the great gift that DePaul University offered me, and so, despite what the administration might do with regard to basketball arenas and gentrification and generally disregarding every word that Vincent de Paul ever said or wrote, I will be forever grateful to the institution. Had I not gone to DePaul, everything would have been different, and I doubt I would have been as happy as I am in this moment.

In closing, thank you to everyone who’s been there. Thank you to everyone who reads this. I don’t know what I’m doing now, two degrees later, but I have no doubt it’ll be a fun ride.

SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

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


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.

ahrc - new logo - now9

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.