Single-Issue Lives: On Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Hero Worship

Note: Adam Lee recently asked me, following a conversation we had earlier this year, to write a post for Daylight Atheism regarding Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and how despite the fact that he, as well as many others, find her story to be very inspirational, her politics are less so. You can find the piece on his blog here.

It is difficult to find out that someone you have great respect for is not perfect. Many of us found this out when Richard Dawkins made his “Dear Muslima” comments, and indeed more recently when he said in a speech that teaching a child about hellfire is worse than a child being sexually abused. Fewer, unfortunately, have found this out about Dan Savage, who, while famous for the “It Gets Better” campaign and catty comments about relationships, spends a lot of time saying appalling things about trans* people, black people, and anyone who doesn’t really fit his normative worldview. When this happens, we find our confidence shattered; we find particularly, as professed skeptics, that what we believed was a conclusion based on evidence has been complicated. This is a problem, and one that is not easy to fix.

Allow me to complicate your lives further, dear atheists, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

In a speech earlier this month (June 2012), a scholar [Hirsi Ali] at an influential think tank and flagship of contemporary Washington conservatism, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), gave voice to one of the justifications for Norwegian anti-Muslim terrorist Anders Breivik‘s attacks, explaining that Breivik said “he had no other choice but to use violence” because his fringe views were “censored.”

Hirsi Ali said, regarding Breivik [bolding from ThinkProgress, linked above]:

Fourthly and finally, that one man who killed 77 people in Norway, because he fears that Europe will be overrun by Islam, may have cited the work of those who speak and write against political Islam in Europe and America – myself among them – but he does not say in his 1500 page manifesto that it was these people who inspired him to kill. He says very clearly that it was the advocates of silence. Because all outlets to express his views were censored, he says, he had no other choice but to use violence.

You can find the full text of the speech here.

This is far from the only instance. For example: Hirsi Ali’s story, which has won her so much acclaim, has many inconsistencies. In her public life, working for the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute, has declared us to be “at war with Islam,” and that we should change the Constitution to strip Muslims of civil rights. She thinks that our wars in the Middle East are good things. She claims that Christians are being faced with genocide, and then offers nothing resembling a fact to back up that assertion, resulting a criminally simplistic argument. When asked whether the free market is responsible for class warfare by Daylight Atheism’s hosts, her answer was sickening:

I will give you the example of the man who murdered Theo van Gogh, who was on welfare. Based on that principle, a 26-year-old, healthy young man, and what I took from that and I think what many Dutch people learned from that is he had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not be.

He would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head. And so the idea that the free market makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, that creates a class antagonism and that that will become a showdown between the two classes and you’re going to have the crime rate go up, and anyway the rich people deserve it. Why don’t they share? I think it’s too simplistic and it’s been tried all over again. It shows that that’s not really how it works.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not a freedom fighter. Nor, really, are any of the so-called “Four Horseman” we have all read. She is a class warrior for the elite, an ally of the same conservatives who we were all railing against a few weeks ago. She believes capitalism establishes moral character, creates a meritocracy, and that, despite numerous studies to the contrary, that the United States is superior to wishy-washy European welfare states.

We know that is not the case. Or at least, we should know that.

We want to think that Hirsi Ali is still a role model, someone to follow in our atheistic paths, a story to hold up as a warning against religious hatred and oppression. And indeed, she has faced great hardship in her life as a result of old patriarchal societies in which she had the misfortune to be raised. But this is not enough to earn our respect, or to hold someone up as a paragon of virtue. Any cursory student of history knows that many a freedom fighter has become a dictator upon gaining power.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not Stalin, but she is a person whose interests are not our own. Even for those of you reading this who think atheists should not be concerned with issues of social justice, I think that you still know that this woman is not your friend. She belongs with the S.E. Cupps of atheism, the ones whose only commonalities with us is a lack of belief in god, which, it has been well documented, does not impart any particular moral goodness. Her views are ones which would keep the working class poor, America as the world’s police, and anyone who disagrees with her in chains, literal and figural. We can admire her story all we like, but she should not be held up as a figure to follow, or look up to; to do so would be to forfeit any pretense of skepticism or rationalism that we aspire to.

Audre Lorde, the great feminist writer and activist, once wrote that there is no such thing as a single issue struggle, for we do not live single issue lives. We would do well, as atheists, as people who wish to see oppression and inequality end in the world, to remember this. We need to pick our leaders and sages with the greatest amount of skepticism and critical thinking which we can muster, and not make do with figureheads who speak of ambrosia, but act with malice. To do otherwise is to take the easy, irrational path. To do that would be to betray ourselves and our fellow secularists, and that, in my mind, is unacceptable.


Links For Your Delectation

I’m traveling tomorrow and then going to be in the hospital having my brain checked out most of the day on Wednesday, so until I get back, here’s some reading!

Miriam, newly crowned #FTBully, talks about how cheating is something we should think more about.

Chana, who really should blog more, writes about how not to respond to survivors of sexual assault who choose to share their stories.

David Hoelscher writes an extremely important piece on how the atheist movement has failed to properly take into account class issues; expect more from me on this next week.

Again on the class front, Walker Bristol of Foundation Beyond Belief comments.

The new movie about Abraham Lincoln isn’t groundbreaking; it’s the same old racism, with some anti-progressivism thrown in for good measure.

The latest Israeli campaign in Gaza is over, but for Palestinians, it is hard to move on.

Sikivu Hutchinson writes fabulously, as ever, on women of color and their struggles related to religion and nonbelief.

Cassy writes a fantastic piece on street harassment.

Following some comments on that piece, the lovely Kate discusses how not to respond to such narratives.

Watch Tony Pinn’s talk on diversity from Skepticon 5!

Laurie Penny has a fantastic interview with author Terry Pratchett.

Finally, in addition to doing fantastic work helping New York recover from Sandy, Occupy has been standing with striking Wal-Mart workers.

See you all on Wednesday, when a piece I am very proud of will go up on a very big atheist blog in the daylight hours. That same piece will be up here Thursday.

Resistance is a Personal Act: Egos, Levinas, and an Ethical World

Recently, I had an interaction in the comments section on a supposedly skepticism-based blogging site, on the particular part owned by a man with appalling facial hair who writes inane, pretentious blather about how bad “females” and social justice is. If you don’t know who this is, I am very jealous of you.

The reason why I commented there at all was because this person, who is, according to his blog, studying to be a mental health counselor, had posted about being an observer at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as part of a graduate course, and his evaluation of them revealed that he was, to say the least, unfit to ever be a counselor. He focused not on the AA attendees’ desires to beat their addiction, but on how uncomfortable he found the religious aspects of that meeting. He made the meetings all about him, and his beliefs, treating those he observed like test subjects and not human beings; when I pointed out this latter fact to him, he was bemused at the possibility of not treating human beings like lab rats.

What this man did was erase people’s agency because he thought they were odd. He treated their use of religious language as, essentially, being indicative of mental illness, which any thinking person knows is horseshit.

I’m not interested in picking apart this vacuous blogger’s point of view, however. That’s a lost cause, unfortunately. What I would rather do is share a personal narrative about how caring, and treating people decently, can make the most important difference.

It has now been more than ten years since I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, which, despite not being cancerous, had grown large enough where, had it continued unchecked, would have killed me in a few days’ time. And that nearly happened, because after two weeks of having migraines, when my mother took me to the doctor to schedule a CAT scan, the MD we saw refused to do so. They treated me like a number, someone whose concerns didn’t matter enough to have a simple test done. Fortunately, my mother isn’t the type to take no for an answer, and I got the surgery I needed thanks to her persistence and my privilege in having parents with jobs that provided excellent health insurance.

Since that time, I’ve gone back to the same hospital, to the same doctors, dozens of times for checkups and, seven years ago, another surgery and a round of radiation treatment. At every step along the way, I have been treated like someone who matters. Not just my doctors, but the nurses, technicians, and other staff who have been a part of my treatment have been kind, understanding, and helpful, answering every single question my mother and I asked, of which, as you might imagine, there were many.

This simple fact of having my agency and intelligence respected along the way is, I think, one of the most important aspects of why I have recovered as well as I have. These things may seem trivial to those who have been taught that what matters most is reason and rationality, and that emotions are pesky things for the weak, but how we treat our fellow human beings makes a huge difference in not just our sensibilities, but in how we make other people feel. And that latter part is essential, if we want to live ethical lives.

What do I mean by this? I must indulge in a slight bit of philosophy to explain. My conception of ethics is formulated largely from the work of the Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who could be described, I think, as being subject to a Woody Allen-esque kind of neurosis; his ethical system is the product of an unceasing worry about how I move through the world. Whereas someone like Hegel was perfectly satisfied with the inability to truly know another or to understand fully the nature of my own actions, Levinas has none of that confidence. Ethics, for him, arises in the question of the ego as it relates to alterity, or a questioning, of my self-consciousness. In essence, because we are not able to quantify exactly what makes us who we are, we can never be sure what we are doing is right or not.

Thus for Levinas, ethics is not an obligation to public service, as in Kant, or the result of self-understanding in Hegel, but a critique, an access to consciousnesses of other humans; but, whereas Hegel and Kant believe they can relate to others to a certain degree, for Levinas, others cannot be comprehended, at least, never in their entirety. Yet, we find ourselves completely in thrall to others; it is always to other human beings to which we have our sense of duty, but we can never know truly what we must do to fulfill that duty; furthermore, we know that we can never fulfill that obligation. Our moral lot in life is, to use Simon Critchley’s terminology, to be subject for our entire existence to an infinitely demanding ethical subjectivity to which our debt can never be paid. Such an utter lack of surety naturally leads to a nervousness, a neuroses, which, for Levinas, dominates all day-to-day interaction.

In plainer language, then, I wish to formulate an ethics wherein our obligations are to the bettering of the world and ending of all systems of oppression. Though Levinas is certainly not perfect, it is his system that allows me to best conceive of this on a theoretical and practical level; other more academic conceptions, like those I briefly mentioned by Kant and Hegel,  are removed from the practical concerns of the everyday world, which I believe, is an ethical wrong; I fail to see the relevance of philosophy that is not done to make a difference in how the world works. This is the power of Levinas for me; that he knows that we shall never truly comprehend our fellow human beings and yet he will never cease trying; what is inherent to Levinas that is missing from Kant and Hegel is the graft, the struggle, the endless grasping for betterment. Being ethical relies on the effort expended by us, not by mere theorizing.

We should always be seeking to improve the world around us. That should start with those we interact with on a day to day basis. Whether we see them around campus every day or only know one another through the internet, having respect for our fellows, regardless of beliefs, is the kind of action that begats goodness. When we do this, and interact not purely based on our own minds, but taking in the concerns of struggles of our fellows, we create a resistance with the power to accomplish great things.

This post is a bit haphazard, I think, but my point is that change is made by us, on a personal level. When we shut up inside ourselves, and believe our consciousnesses to be the only ones that matter, like the blogger I wrote about at the start of this post, all we do is cause harm. The doctor who refused to schedule a simple test thought this way, and nearly caused me great harm. The common denominator of all harm is a lack of engagement with the greater consciousness of the population. It is only by caring for one another, taking each other’s beliefs into account, and having a true discussion based on evidence and respect, and ruthlessly checking our own assumptions a la Levinas that we will have a just world. This must happen everywhere, in everything we do, to make this world one where injustice ceases to exist.

This Holiday Season

I’m still on vacation, enjoying not having deadlines or my future looming over my head, but I do want to take a break from my cocktails-and-home-cooking existence to say a quick something about the season we now find ourselves in.

Right now, I’m writing this from a chair in my mother’s house in West Hartford, Connecticut, which is pretty much exactly the bourgeois white peoplesville you think it is. I just took a 20 minute trip to pick up groceries, and everywhere there were people out shopping, because it is Black Friday, one of the ultimate consumerist holidays, where Americans move as one to go spend money on useless shit for Christmas, because the norms of our society have told them that is what they are supposed to do.

This post isn’t necessarily about Black Friday, or how awful it is. You already know all about that. I want to say a quick something about who is out there making sure you can buy your widgets and iThings.

Think about the last thing you bought at a store, or the last time you ate out or got a coffee. Do you remember the person who rang your order up? What they looked like? What their name was? What, if anything, you talked about? Do you remember anything about them whatsoever, other than that they facilitated your consumption?

Today, and even yesterday, thousands of workers are on the job, away from their families, denied any sort of holiday break whatsoever because there are millions of you who feel the primeval urge to get deals and buy things. Many of them are on strike today because they know that enough is enough.And they’re not just striking because of today. They’re striking because worker’s rights in our country are not-so-slowly being eradicated. Things that used to be guaranteed, like health insurance and other benefits are becoming things of the past.

In the restaurant industry, it is even worse. The people who are cooking and serving your food are working for some of the lowest wages in America, for which they pull insane hours with absolute no benefits, guaranteed vacations, or anything to lessen the burden. People working the line kill themselves for you, for strangers, not for a necessity, but because you decided that day you didn’t want to cook, or that you wanted to spend a bit of extra money to dress up and be seen at that new hot spot, to brag to your friends that you went there. And the kitchen staff carries on, at great personal cost, usually with no recognition whatsoever. The front of the house, the waiters and bartenders, have probably been on their feet for six or seven hours straight by the time you see them, making less than minimum wage, dependent on tips to survive.

Remember this whenever you go out to eat, or to a shop to buy clothes or groceries or whatever. The person helping you out, answering your silly questions, are having bad days. They are working their asses off for your pleasure, and that day they’ve probably sweated and bled more to do it than you ever have in your life. Check yourself, don’t get pissy that the place you’re eating doesn’t have exactly what you want, don’t make absurd demands on sales staff. You’re not helping. You’re being an asshole, and you need to stop.

Slight Hiatus

Hi all.

So, this blogging every-to-near-every-day thing is something I’m committed to sticking to. However, it’s finals week at DePaul, and I’m leaving town in five days for some much needed relaxation with the family, so I’ll probably be a bit sporadic for a while. Have no fear, I will be back, because I have ALL of the things to write about!


The Petraeus Imbecility

Quelle horreur, man the battlements, remove your hats, and salute the casket: Captain America has fallen.

To the shock and dismay of every America lover out there, General David Petraeus, mastermind of the so-called “surge” tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan that let mainstream news watchers believe that America could triumph in the Middle East over those evil brown folk and still be the bestest country ever, and lately Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he oversaw the implementation of our shiny killer robots in countries where we’re not at war, has resigned from his post due to having an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, the author of his recent biography.

Now, I have no interest in the General’s infidelity. As long as it’s consensual, the dude can sleep with whomever he wants, and I won’t give a solitary damn. I’ll leave the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the supposed muddying of his sterling reputation to the prudes and flag-wavers who pop out of their holes every time a public official is revealed to be a horndog. Makes no never mind to me.

However, what does concern me are Petraeus’ worshipers in DC and elsewhere, who have rushed to the man’s defense. There is no doubt that despite his valorization by everyone and anyone who supports America spending hundreds of billions it does not have on useless foreign wars because it makes their members stand at attention, Petraeus holds a huge amount of responsibility for turning the CIA into a paramilitary force, not an intelligence agency, as well as continuing the US’ fights in Afghanistan and Iraq in secret, such that they are now the longest conflicts in American history. Despite this, cable news heads have in particular bent over backwards to defend the man; how he’s a West Point grad, military genius (because apparently simply pouring more soldiers into a battle and using extremely advanced technology to kill more or less indiscriminately is now apparently considered brainy strategy; Henry V would weep), and All-American Hero.

See, the fact of the matter just is that he is nothing of the sort. In fact, all he has proven in this scandal is how incredibly inept and blithely ignorant he is, fine qualities to be held by the top spy in the country. In a rare moment of clarity from Politico, Roger Simon points out the glaringly obvious in that David Petraeus, head of the most powerful intelligence agency on Planet Earth and formerly lord high muckety-muck of the most powerful army on the same world, thinks that Gmail accounts are secure enough so that he could send explicit e-mails to his secret lover. And not have them be traced. This kind of idiocy makes the chuckle brothers over at SkepticInk look like bloody Rhodes Scholars.

Nevertheless, he is continuously defended from all parts of the political establishment, especially by President Obama. However, as is so common in our times, any dissent from the hero message is being mercilessly mocked.

Now, I’m in no trouble because no one, outside of a very few lovely people, know who the hell I am. But, for others, it’s different. Take, for example, Michael Hastings, who is an actual journalist that still does those things like investigative reporting that most people at newsdesks these days seem to think are outdated. He has already been involved in the takedown of a major American general, this one being Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus’ predecessor in the Army. Since reporting actual news is tantamount to treason these days, Hastings is not a well-loved man at the desks of most mainstream news organizations. For instance, Dylan Byers, a Politico hack, who wrote a piece two days ago lampooning Hastings for, well, being a good journalist:

The third and final thing to know about Hastings is that he considers himself something of a gonzo journalist. His gut instinct is to cause trouble. At a time when the mainstream media seem more cautious than ever, that can be extremely refreshing. If you believe that journalists are supposed to call bull when they see it, then Hastings is your man. But to those who believe journalists shouldn’t be advocates — either out of ethical concerns or practical ones (it’s not always effective) — Hastings is muddying sacred waters.

Can you smell the self-righteousness? And also the deep aromas of self loathing? This shit is absolutely amazing.

In closing, the American tradition of hero worship for those in uniform is alive and well, even if the person being supplicated to has revealed himself to be a massive idiot and unfit for command of a commissary. And I admit, I have had a lot of snarky fun in writing this. Perhaps too much; I am, after all, losing my mind to finals week. But I can’t help but giggle with glee and schadenfreude at the fact that the head spy in the American government was brought down by the same kind of draconian invasions of privacy which have become de rigeur in the past decade. The romance, the justice to it, is just beautiful in every single way.

Petraeus/Skepticon Link Roundup

This is a thing bloggers do, right?

Chris Rodda talks about David Petraeus’ spiritual fitness, or lack thereof.

In that vein, Glenn Greenwald does his usual phenomenal job of pointing out what the real scandal in the Petraeus story is.

Relating in my mind to Rebecca Watson’s awesome talk on bad science at Skepticon, Zinnia Jones details a homophobic study on same-sex families.

The supremely awesome Sarah Moglia talks about chronic illness and how we discuss it in society.

Stephanie Zvan responds to James Croft’s talk at Skepticon on humanist gathering sites. (I plan on writing about this very soon).

Amanda Marcotte (who I met at Skepticon and squeed over and oh my god she’s amazing) talks about how the harassment policy at the conference was a huge boon to the experience.

Crommunist talks about how all racists have herpes. At least, that’s what I read into it.

Finally, this is just awesome.