Croft’s Response and Some Clarifications

So, I’m going to be the first to admit that my piece at In Our Words today is, organizationally, not my best. I tend to write shorter pieces there because I spend my life writing 15+ page opuses on Rousseau and conceptual art, and because I know no one who reads that site wants my take on the nature of ethical and political and linguistic quandaries a la Quine, Levinas, Nussbaum, etc. As such, this particular piece is distinctly lacking, when it should have been more robust in this issue. Especially as it deals with a topic that has caused much miscommunication, bickering, and name-calling, I should have done my damnedest to be as clear as possible, and I did not. For that, I’m sorry, and the lesson has been learned.

So, here I go.

James Croft, who works for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, who I quoted in my original post, has written a response to it. Unlike me, he didn’t go for brevity, and it’s the kind of post I should have written originally. But I do have some things to say about it.

First off, I did not choose the title. My editor, Nico, did. And I really dislike it. BUT I STILL LOVE YOU NICO.

Next, James is absolutely right in saying that secular groups like Center For Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, etc. have been around far longer than 2004. And that’s why I said that the groups I listed have either “formed or come to prominence.” I suppose it’s down to one’s definition of prominence, but I would argue that these groups are far more well known since 2004 than they were before; their membership increases and public visibility prove it. It’s in that context that I used prominence. And I’m never missing a day on his blog again now that I’ve seen the depth of his Ingersoll love. It’s so great.

He and I clearly share an activist mindset, but I’m more than a little troubled by his characterization of me. He all too quickly groups me in with PZ Myers, who has long sparred with the HCH, saying that I “[do not] support it wholeheartedly.” He’s right; I can’t think of a single organization in the world I support wholeheartedly, or don’t have some reservation with, but now I am being pedantic. Never in my article did I say that I think the HCH is dumb, or misguided, or in any way call it or the people who work for it idiots. What I did was offer perhaps not the most perfectly worded critique, but a critique nonetheless, of the language being used, and asked for a rationale for it. And, to James’ great credit, he responded extremely well, and answered my questions brilliantly. It’s really, really refreshing to have a discussion where questions get answered, not one where more insults are just thrown around.

I did say I love PZ, and I do: he’s one of the very few “big names” in the secular blogosphere who talks politics, feminism, sex-positivity, etc. The liberal section of the “Standards and Practices” governing his blog make me very happy. He regularly calls out the awful trolls who abuse people like Rebecca Watson and advocates for the freethought community to address things like sexism, feminism, and other matters of social justice. But, he has his bad moments too, as do we all. So, please don’t take my support of PZ as being absolute. It’s not. And as such, I thought it a bit unfair to lump my offerings in with his; he said the HCH was absolutely wrong, I asked a question. Subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless.

Even after James’ explanations, I still find the claim that “secular society” does not create a sense of community to be a little problematic. Simon Critchley, who I mentioned briefly earlier, wrote what I believe to be the best analysis of the modern dearth of community and organization in his 2007 book Infinitely Demanding; in it, he posits that philosophy, being the investigation of life itself, begins in disappointment, both political and religious, because of the lack of motivational and moral deficit that is inherent in secular liberal democracy. In short, liberal democracies do not motivate their citizenry to action, for obvious reasons: when one has apparent freedom and exercisable rights, what is there to be angry about? Add in the free market, mass media, etc, and you’ve got a lovely stew of placation and laziness.

That is, in short, our present circumstance: I think that saying that the sense of togetherness garnered from religious communities being the best path forward in this circumstance ignores a lot of issues associated with religious communities as well as the current state of world politics. I, personally, count myself extremely fortunate to be part of an amazing community of activists here in Chicago, not just secularists I know from my presidency of DAFT, but the feminists, LGBTQ people, socialists, anarchists, and others who populate DePaul and the other universities around the city. We not only have a thriving community, but also engage in activism: DePaul’s Feminist Front recently put on a Trans 101 workshop at Occupy Chicago, for instance, and we are in the planning stages for other events like Take Back the Night. There are people of faith involved in this community, certainly, but there is nothing religious or spiritual about the work that we do.  James is very right in saying that activist communities have not, as of yet, arisen in atheist activism; but, they are starting to show signs of doing so, and already have risen all across the country, especially in Secular Student Alliance affiliates.

This is an issue that should be addressed more fully in a post of its own, but I will just say that I don’t think that the HCH’s approach to organization is necessarily the best one, as they seem to assert that it is, and nor do I believe that the way we have organized in Chicago is the best. Saying that one way or another is “best” in such a situation does not seem useful in this situation: what matters is that people are organizing, are becoming active. And in our case, secular society has absolutely offered community and a sense of togetherness; going back to Critchley, even when there is no one single motivating force in a democracy, it is possible to be motivated by that lack, which I think is at the very heart of our activism.

I’m not saying that the HCH is bad; never have I said that, an in the original post I said exactly the same thing. I am not the kind of atheist who thinks that just because something is religious it is bad. I don’t particularly care about religious language; it doesn’t offend me whens someone says “God bless you” in response to a sneeze, and I certainly am overly guilty of taking God’s name in vain. But I am curious as to its use, and I want to continue analyzing it, because I’m a philosophy major and that’s what I do. Social movements inevitably stagnate without internal as well as external analysis: as such, I’m just trying to figure out what makes the various organizations tick, as it were.

Just to try and clear this part up once and for all: at one point in his response, James asks, “To put it bluntly, how stupid do Tripp and PZ think we are?” I don’t. Not at all. Ne’er did I say such a thing. As a philosophy student, I have learned that language is extremely important; one stray word here or there can have meaning that the writer never intended. As such, I saw words like “chaplain” being associated with a secular institution, and became curious as to why the HCH chose to use it. Maybe “troubled” wasn’t the word to use, just very curious. As James said, chaplain has become more frequently used in a secular sense, but I would wager quite strongly that for most people in the world, its first connotation is a religious one. I never said that I thought the HCH was wrong or dumb because of it; as I said, I am not a PZ clone. I posited a possible explanation, from my own deduction, and asked if I had a decent point. In short, what a student of philosophy should do.

In closing, I would like to thank James for reading my post and offering a response. I hope that in the future we can continue to discuss this and other issues in a civil manner, and maybe make some positive changes along the way.


Rick Perry’s Ad

Dear readers, another Republican has come out of the closet. That’s right: Rick Perry has decided that he’s not afraid any more, and has to let a deep secret be known: he’s a privileged, homophobic ass.

Not exactly a revelatory statement. The video really is just a desperate ploy by Perry, previous not-Mitt Romney Republican frontrunner to remain relevant in an election campaign that has long since shot him in the knee and left him for dead by the side of the road. This video is absurd, and awful, and seemingly just the sort of thing that should be ignored and pushed to the side in a supposedly civilized society like ours. But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that is not a viable option.

See, the reason why this video has resonated so much is not simply because of its blatant bigotry, but instead because its warped view of reality is one that is at the forefront of rightwing policy. Sikivu Hutchinson, one of my absolute favorite writers and someone EVERYONE needs to be reading, put it perfectly:

In American politics, patriotism, race-baiting and faith-based pandering are the last refuge of a scoundrel.  And this political season militant GOP appeals to white Christian evangelicals have veered into neo-Cold War hysteria. One of the most powerful scenes in Orwell’s 1984 was when Party member O’Brien succeeds in brainwashing protagonist Winston Smith into believing that 2+2 equals 5.  The Religious Right has been practically virtuosic in its 2+2=5 mass doublespeak; convincing mainstream America that Christians are the new minority and that commie pinko “secular progressives” (Bill O’Reilly’s preferred “smear”) are at the helm of a socialist conspiracy.

That’s right, folks. In the United States, the nation with the highest percentage of Christians in the population in the world, the Jesus-lovers are now a minority and the homo atheist socialists are in control. At least, that’s what the Republicans would like you to believe. Personally, I wish with all my might it was true, but that’s just me.

Christian nationalism is very much a thing, people. The Ricks Perry and Santorum would like nothing more than our country to become a theocracy, with Pat Robertson at its head. They may not have poll numbers of any relevance, but they have still been elected, in some cases repeatedly, and they have many, many allies in Congress and other branches of government.

I don’t think I have to tell you what would happen if they actually managed to be elected to higher offices. They all hate non-straight people openly, hate non-whites a smidge less openly, and if Perry’s record as Governor of Texas is any indication, have itchy trigger fingers and plenty of weapons for them. Their platforms are the old fascism of the 30s and 40s wearing new faces. We can deride them, and we should do that, but we must not let that derision stop us from taking these people seriously. They have the capacity to make things awful for all of us, not just make our brains drip out our ears with their inanity.

Cain and Gingrich

Comedians and pundits all across the country let out a great sigh of disappointment a few weeks ago when Herman Cain dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency. The mounting pile of allegations of sexual harassment against him just proved too much for the Pokemon and pizza enthusiast who was generous with material for Jon Stewart.

Now, though, his supporters have moved to support Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and the only other person in the race who could be said to have an even more horrifying history with women than Cain. This is the guy who was not just cheating on his wife with another woman before and during when said wife was in a hospital bed recovering from cancer treatments, but actually brought a handwritten contract for their divorce and presented them to her in said hospital bed, then refused several months later to pay alimony or child support. He was cheating on his second wife with his current wife when he was leading the witch hunt against Bill Clinton. It’s safe to say that he is a fucking atrocious example of a human being from just those tidbits, but there is so much more. From Lawrence Lewis at Daily Kos:

The politics of Newt Gingrich are obvious. Not only is he a cookie-cutter Republican champion of the 1 percent, he also is an enemy of the 99 percent. A typical Republican hypocrite on fiscal responsibility, he espouses a balanced budget but after voting for the policies of Reagan and the elder Bush that created the largest federal deficits in history, he then voted against the Bush tax increases that were meant to begin to address them. He then voted against the Clinton tax increases on the wealthy that helped balance the budget and spark the economic boom that created near full employment. And while opposing most of the best of President Clinton’s policies, he supported President Clinton’s worst policies.

The rest of that particular article provides a laundry list of his horribleness. Every action he took while in officer seemed to explicitly benefit himself or the wealthy who bankrolled his and his party’s campaigns, while waging war against food stamps and other such welfare programs for the poorest in America. His actions became so reprehensible that he was the first Speaker ever to be disciplined for ethics violations. Lovely person, isn’t he?

His actions have been so outrageous that after a short period, many conservative intellectuals (I use the term cautiously) are turning against him. George Will said that Gingrich “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.” Peter King, the biggest Irish Republican Army fanboy in Congress, says that Newt “lacks the capacity to control himself.” Finally, Peggy Noonan makes the point that the people most worried about him becoming President are those who worked with him.

Not exactly a stirring endorsement by anyone but himself, then. Imagine that.

Language and Community

In the past few years, as the atheist movement has really begun to gain traction and grow, it has become generally accepted in the community that trying to organize a bunch of nonbelievers is akin to herding cats. Since what could arguably be called the beginning of the movement in 2004, there hasn’t really been a huge emphasis on activism; especially in America, where atheists are among the most loathed people in the country, most organizations have been focusing more on building safe communities rather than getting out and making change. The rationale is entirely logical, but as I’ve written before, I feel strongly that there needs to be a shift in the movement towards activism.

But how does that happen? I return to the herding cats metaphor. Over the past several years, all kinds of different organizations for nonbelievers have either formed or come to prominence: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition of America, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Student Alliance, to name but a few. Each organization is ostensibly working towards the same goal of making the country more welcoming for nonbelievers, but all have different methods, or are more focused on certain things: the FFRF is a legal body that works to maintain separation of church and state, the Secular Coalition lobbies in Washington, etc. With each group comes their own egos and beliefs, and thus, conflicts.

Back in October, the Boston Globe published a story about the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, an organization at that university which is “dedicated to building, educating, and nurturing a diverse community of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at Harvard and beyond.” And, as you might have guessed from the name, their community takes on many aspects of what could be called, well, a church service. The head of the organization, Greg Epstein, has the title of chaplain. James Croft, who occasionally writes at In Our Words, says that just because they “leave behind their religious beliefs doesn’t mean they stop having those needs. But secular society has not yet come up with a way to give them moments of significance with the same level of beauty and care that goes into religious ceremonies. That is a big gap.’’

There was a lot of blowback on this issue from nonbelievers of all sorts, especially PZ Myers of Pharyngula, whose response you can read here. Rather than re-hash all of the arguments for and against, I want to take issue with the nature of the HHC’s language, which, above all, seems to be the main complaint from detractors of the organization. I should point out here that I am not a linguist; I’m not about to infuriate you by nitpicking every root and ending of a word and completely ignore the context. (I’ve just had a very infuriating run-in with a linguist in a Facebook debate. They’re on my shitlist at the moment). I’m much more interested in why the HHC is so desperate to align themselves with religious images.

Take, for instance, Croft’s quote from the paragraph before: secular society, he says, does not offer the same kinds of significance and beauty that religious ceremonies supposedly provide. Not being a regular churchgoer myself, and relying on my experiences as a troublemaking seven year old who hated Sunday school because I had books about the Big Bang and space travel which were SO MUCH COOLER than the Jesus fellow… I just don’t understand what he means. To me, church has always looked like this:

Not too much exciting about your typical Christian service, I would wager. So, what is Croft talking about? The only thing that seems to make any sense in this context is the spiritual part of religion: the great sense of belonging, everyone believing in one thing, maybe being inspired by the tone or content of the man in fancy robes standing at the front of everyone. In essence, the irrational, hive-mind aspect of religion. The part that’s at the core of our resistance against religion. 

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the HHC doesn’t really do that sort of thing. They have potlucks and philosophical debates and guest speakers who talk about things like discrimination against atheists in the military. The Globe article mentioned meditation, but that’s hardly supernatural in character: even fanboy darling Sam Harris does that kind of thing, and attempts to explain it using neuroscience. In essence, all very rational activities that are not based on any kind of dogma. Yet, both Croft and Epstein claim that the HHC fulfills that supposedly missing aspect of secular society, something that the latter claims in that Globe piece that groups like the Secular Student Alliance cannot. Yet, they deal in the rational, while that missing piece they talk about seems to be entirely irrational.

I’m not hating on the HHC here. I’m not interested in burning bridges or yelling at anyone unless they really deserve it. I think they’re a good organization doing interesting and important work, and boy is that Chris Stedman a charming little hipster. (Seriously, though. He is.) But I do find their language problematic for its religious connotations, especially in a movement that is so supposedly based on rationality as ours is. That “supposedly,” by the way, is a topic for a whole other righteous rage piece. But another time.

I hope this is taken as a constructive criticism, and if I have indeed mischaracterized James’ statement, I’d love for him to correct me; print journalism these days doesn’t necessarily always quote in context. I’m not PZ Myers, though I do love him: I’m just a perpetually furious progressive philosophy major searchin’ for some truths. Or something like that.

Yes, Virginia, We Can Be Mad at Obama.

Ah, 2008. Remember that year? That was a fun time. Television writer’s strike, Eliot Spitzer got taken down for being anti-Wall Street, the first blows of our economic catastrofuck, and the country was all aflutter for Barack Obama, that suave, eloquent, handsome Senator man from Chicago who played basketball and unapologetically smoked weed during his college years. His speeches were rousing, he had a catchy slogan, and with grouchy Old Man McCain as his opponent, he was always going to be the popular choice.

Predictably, he swept into office on the back of his message of hope and change, and even more predictably, he has unequivocally failed to deliver on his promises. In fact, he’s been doing his finest George W. Bush impression: despite ordering the closing of Guantanamo Bay, it hasn’t happened. He let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans be renewed. He has extended the Patriot Act. He has been the worst president for whistleblowers in history, and has turned a blind eye to the torture of Private Bradley Manning by US intelligence. And that is just his domestic policy.

In the Congress, it’s been even more frustrating. Obama entered office with strong majorities in both houses of the legislature, but in some strange, Doris Kearns Goodwin fantasy of his, instead of pushing through as much good legislation as possible, the President decided that attempting to work with the Republicans, that most reasonable and calm of political parties, was a better idea. It backfired spectacularly, leading to progressive laws like the health care bill and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell either being gutted, endlessly delayed, or dying out altogether.

You’d think, then, that the establishment of the Left would be pissed at Obama for failing to live up to even a modicum of his hype. But it’s there that you’d be wrong; there’s a new trend now of middle-left Democrats accusing their more progressive peers of being unreasonable, of asking too much. Our own mayor called those who criticized so-called Blue Dog Democrats for balking on the health care bill “fucking retarded.” Jonathan Chait, war apologist and the guy those Blue Dogs have posters of on their walls, wrote a feature for New York Magazine two weeks ago making this claim:

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

Why is this? Chait makes the claim that liberals have a strong case of Reagan-envy: that is, a figure of idolatry who is made to epitomize all that is great and good about the party, a demigod. Chait concludes that

If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live.

So, what Chait wants liberals to do is stop questioning and challenging our leaders and blindly follow the path, as the Republicans have done for so long. Besides the incredible hilarity of the fact that he’s ignoring the fact that many, many Democrats already do this, isn’t it just a fucking awful thing to want anyways? Sit down, shut up, be happy with what you get, don’t try to make change? Great, that’s an inspiring message to tell your children. That’s exactly what we should be teaching: be mediocre, and you’ll never be disappointed.

So, is it reasonable to be disappointed with Obama as a liberal? You bet your ass it is. Should it come with certain caveats, since the Congress is incredibly messed up? Sure. But don’t call for your fellows to be satisfied just because of that. Disappointment is an inevitable part of life, so use it as a driver to make change, not an excuse to give up.