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.

Inhumanity.

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.

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SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

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

SSA-week-Page-Banner

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!

The Racist Nature of Critiques of Islamic Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Women’s Leadership Project Review of 2012

Doctor Sikivu Hutchinson, the activist, scholar, author of what I believe to be the most important atheist book written to date, and huge inspiration to me, is amongst other things the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist mentoring program for middle and high school aged women in South Los Angeles. I wrote about them a few months ago in my piece on the activism of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and how I believe atheist activism can and should focus its attentions more on issues pertaining to more than just separation of church and state.

They recently posted a recap of their work in 2012, and what they have to report is inspiring:

  • WLP Wash Prep & GHS developed and facilitated Days of Dialogue, HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, sexual assault awareness, AB540, media literacy and voter awareness presentations
  • WLP Wash Prep students registered new voters at Wash Prep and Duke Ellington HS
  • WLP launched Wash Prep’s Gay/Straight Alliance
  • WLP students and alum developed and presented at the HRC’s annual Youth Media Education Conference
  • WLP alum joined with community partners Black Women for Wellness and FUEL to conduct four college panels at Wash Prep, GHS and Cal State Dominguez Hills
  • WLP Wash Prep president Jamion Allen spoke before the LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] Human Relations Commission on bullying and harassment
  • WLP Wash Prep sponsored Chicano student movement activist and change agent Paula Crisostomo for Women’s History Month & the Women of Color Speaker Series
  • WLP GHS member Karly Jeter (class of ’13) won a full four year Posse Foundation Scholarship to the College of William & Mary in D.C.
  • WLP Wash Prep member Victory Yates (class of ’13) was a finalist for a Posse Foundation Scholarship to Grinnell College
  • WLP GHS president Miani Giron (class of ’12) won full scholarships from the Posse Foundation and the Horatio Alger Foundation
  • WLP GHS seniors & alum Lizeth Soria, Janeth Silva, Imani Moses, Brenda Briones, Mayra Burunda, Clay Wesley (class of ’10), Miani Giron, Jimena Villa and Ronmely Andrade received community leadership “First in the Family” scholarships from the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable and the Wells Fargo Foundation
  • Mayra Borunda (class of ’10) made the President’s List at CSU Long Beach during her first semester with a GPA of 3.8 and is currently on the Dean’s List with a GPA of a 3.67.
  • Brenda Briones (class of ’12) got a 4.0 during her first college semester.
The students themselves had a lot to say about how their involvement with the WLP has affected them [emphasis mine]:

“In my home and in my community I have always understood that a higher education is not as important as having kids and staying home to clean and cook like a “real woman/ wife” does.

I think of Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) as the light in the darkness. As a senior at Gardena, I had no hope or desire to go to college before WLP. I used to think it would be impossible for me to attend college because I’m undocumented.”

– Liz Soria

“I never really questioned how the media portrays women of color. So, having WLP teach us how to observe and analyze the media helped me understand why young girls feel pressured to have ‘that long hair,’ ‘those blue eyes’—even if they are contacts, and “that nice body.” Aside from learning how to recognize these issues, we also did a lot of work to fight things that like sexual harassment. I know some people may say, ‘oh, just ignore it,’ but it’s not ok to ignore sexual harassment because by staying quiet, you begin to normalize it.”

– Imani Moses, Class of ’11

In my opinion, the WLP is doing absolutely incredible work, and we as a community of secularists should be bringing more attention to them. This is the kind of activism that our movement should be looking to invest in; fixing the education system using these kind of methods, using skepticism and rationality to help kids who probably never had anyone invested in their successes before care about them and help them learn. When a population realizes just how the world works, as an entrenched system of intersecting inequalities kept in place through convention and apathy, we can really shake things up.

A Reintroduction

Hi all. I’m back after a bit of a self-imposed break from the internet. I’m going to do my best to get back to regular posting quickly, but given the restart of school and today’s release of the last book in the Wheel of Time series, that may not happen for a bit. We shall see.

In any case, I wanted to take some time not just to talk about the last piece I wrote before going on break, wherein I said some, well, controversial things about two big atheist organizations, but also to give the new readers here something of a reintroduction to who I am and why I think what I do. This blog’s readership isn’t huge yet, but it has exploded over the past four months as I’ve started posting regularly.

So, given that, hello again. My name is Andrew, and I’m a senior studying philosophy and art history at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. My work focuses on ethics, political philosophy, feminism, critical race theory, aesthetics, and how all of them intersect. I’m also, as you might have noticed, an atheist, and furthermore, I’m one of those super evil nonreligious people who think that nonbelievers, and everyone, for a matter of fact, should concern themselves with social justice issues and work to make the world a more just place. i.e. I want to kill your freeze peaches, MRA’s and associated enablers of oppression. To that end, I do activism in not just atheist spaces, but also in the realms of feminism, trans* issues, and race issues.

Regarding that, I write a lot about how the atheist movement works and why I feel it is lacking, particularly in the case of the larger, more recognizable groups like American Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who I criticized for what I believe is lackluster activism in regards to their activities during the holiday season. There was a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, from a lot of spaces, some surprising, some far less so. I’m not going to go through and respond to every critic in this post, because I just do not have the willpower. Rather, I want to try to explain, in a bit greater detail, why I hold the beliefs I do about those groups, and why I think AA in particular is not doing good activism.

Firstly, I have argued in the past that atheism alone does not engender goodness, or a ethical selfhood. We know this by simple observation of the movement as it exists today; by any decent standard, the people who constantly harass Amy Davis Roth, Rebecca Watson, Melody Hensley, Sarah Moglia, and other feminist atheists, are not good people. They sometimes even put their targets’ safety at risk as did Justin Vacula when he posted Amy’s address on the internet, or thunderf00t did when he hacked FreethoughtBlogs and stole personal information of Natalie Reed’s. The people who do such things are only too proud declare themselves atheists, free of the religious dogma they so love to lampoon, and yet they act like middle school bullies.

I am not lumping Dave Silverman or Annie Laurie Gaylor in with them; I don’t particularly care for the Silverman’s style, but he’s not anywhere near the category that Vacula or Ed Clint are. I merely use the example to illustrate that atheism does not equal goodness automatically, which is a belief that both Silverman and Gaylor seem to hold. At least, this is what seems, to me, to be indicated by their advertising campaigns. American Atheists put up big, flashy, if not particularly well designed or copy edited, PR stunts to drive membership and attempt to bring people to atheism. The FFRF fights for the separation of church and state first and foremost, but also uses billboards to indicate to the average passerby that atheists do exist, are good people, and aren’t baby-eating monsters.

This is all well and good. I would be rightly pilloried were I to say that I didn’t want there to be more people holding a secular worldview in our society, or that I did not want the influence of religion to decline in our government and those elsewhere. However, where it seems Silverman simply wants to get our numbers up, to the point where he seems to deliberately misread statistics to claim there are far more American nonbelievers than there are, I want people to become members of the atheist movement for the right reasons. I want people to be attracted to atheism because atheists are good people who do good works, not simply because we all don’t believe in any gods. I want atheism to be a proper movement, one that works together with our natural allies to end oppression, rather than what it still is now, a white boys’ club that is hostile to traditionally marginalized groups like women, people of color, people outside the gender binary, and people with disabilities. Right now, most of the big atheist organizations are not doing that; they are making PR stunts, looking for numbers, not for complications. We need to convince people to join the secular movement because it is a good thing, because the movement is an ethical, change-driven one, not just because, as AA endlessly points out, religion is dumb.

To that end, what you are going to find on this blog is going to vary widely. I will probably talk about the newest snafus in the movement and try to analyze what goes on. I will talk about feminism, particularly regarding chivalry, on which I plan to have a series of posts coming in the next weeks. I will talk about queer issues, about ableism, about violence, about racism. I will use my training as a budding historian of art and architecture to show how aesthetics and how we interact with our world intersect and work to hold up systemic oppressions. I will attempt to prove to you, using evidence, reason, skepticism, and rationality, backed by my knowledge of philosophy and radical activism, how all of these things intersect, and why we cannot just simply look at religion as the cause of everything that is bad, but how we as atheists can work to bring down the whole structure of injustice and violence that we exist in.

Ambitious, I know. But I’m going to do my damnedest to live up to it. I hope you’ll stick around and join the conversation with me, and with my new coblogger who I will be introducing tomorrow. I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s one worth having.

The Yuletide Honking of Privileged, Out-of-Touch Atheist Organizations

Oh, Christmas. It’s a time of year I like a lot; it gets cold, snow falls, I get to wear big scarves and hats, and I get to spend time with my family. I bet the same is true for many of you. Good cheer, good will towards humankind, whichever version of the Christmas Carol movie is your favorite (George C. Scott, for the record, beats them all), and all that jazz.

There are, however, a few things I also hate about Christmas.

  1. The rampant, awful consumerism.
  2. Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives’ shrieking about how the Baby Jesus is under attack from the Grinch and Satan. Or something.
  3. Obnoxious atheists with a victim complex.

It’s like clockwork. Every single year, while Papa Bear and his ilk rant on, it seems that every mainstream atheist organization around gets into the act. Dave Silverman makes a few media appearances and shouts soundbites at anchors, then someone gets sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for having a nativity scene on public property. This year, it’s no different; not only has Silverman made his Fox News rounds, his organization, American Atheists, has, rather than invest in activism or supporting civil rights for atheists as is their mantra, they have spent what must certainly be an absurd amount of money to put up a poorly designed, terribly written billboard in Times Square. Fortunately, unlike in the past, they have managed to avoid being hideously racist, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly making me feel better.

Source: Friendly Atheist

The FFRF, too, has been active, demanding equal space for signs of their own wherever those evil Nativity scenes may roam, in small towns throughout America, and raising a stink when one of those signs was supposedly vandalized. And in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, an atheist is moaning about his Very Real Oppression because the town’s buses are displaying Merry Christmas on them. All in all, there are lots of atheists who are Very Very Cross with those silly Christians for… um, quite honestly, I have no fucking clue.

To me, and maybe to you too, this all just seems like petty, bush-league bullshit. To Silverman, though, it seems to be the most important cause on the whole earth. His zealotry and blindness to the absurdity of his methods was put into a stark light recently by Dan Merica at CNN, who wrote a piece analyzing the differences between the approaches to the Christmas season offered by American Atheists and those of the Humanist Community at Harvard. Silverman, as we’ve noted, thinks billboards and shouting are going to result in civil rights. Epstein, though, seems to be taking the novel approach of, well, helping people, partnering with religious groups to provide food to those in need. He said:

My biggest hope at this season — especially this year — is that our movement can focus on building communities that serve those in need. That means the poor, the hungry, the isolated, the enslaved — and it also means all of us. Any of us can, at any point, become the victim of a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook. We need to look out for one another and love one another. Usually it is religion that does so. But if we work very hard and invest time and money in it, the coming generation can bring real, meaningful secular communities all across the country where people can be the light and the gift to one another.

He did include a slight dig at AA, but nowhere near the arrogance of Silverman (emphasis from Hemant’s article on this at Friendly Atheist):

While we differ strongly in method, our end goals are the same — atheist normalcy and full acceptance in society. I don’t think [Epstein is] doing the right thing because he is going out of his way to be tolerant to that with which we should all be intolerant — lies and organized corruption. But he is doing what he thinks is best, and if that includes getting atheists to stay in the movement by playing nice with religion’s victims, well, there are worse things he could be doing.

I certainly believe he is benefiting from AA.

In essence, what Silverman is saying that, given the chance to help people in need, he would not take the opportunity if it meant he had to work with a religious organization. But then, just in case, tried to take credit for the Harvard Humanists’ successes.

I’m just baffled all around that a group of people who deem themselves rationalists can indulge in such overwhelming bravado and blindness to their privilege. Claiming that spending an outrageous sum of money for a billboard, which Silverman justifies by the number of members that AA gets from each one that goes up, is more effective at making the world a better place than direct action initiatives is not just absurd, but offensive. The tens of thousands of dollars that AA spent on their ego trip could have actually helped people without a place to go or food to eat this holiday season, but instead, they chose membership fees. They chose to be blind to their privilege, and focus their activism on an avenue that is inherently classist and ostracizing to anyone who has to save their money to buy food or pay for their utilities rather than get an AA e-mail every once in a while. And certainly, being one of the oldest and most well respected legal bodies in secular activism, the FFRF has better things to do with their very limited budget than walk through tiny towns and piss all over a plastic representation of Jesus’ birth?

With their incredibly out of touch priorities, American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are not helping to advance secularism or civil rights for atheists with their Christmastime actions. What they are doing is sophomoric and more fit for name-calling in a high school cafeteria than it is for high profile activist organizations. Especially when lined up side by side with the Harvard Humanists, they are an embarassment. And while I still have my differences with some of the Humanists there, their activism is actually helping people, and they should be applauded for it. On the other hand, AA and the FFRF need to take a strong look at themselves, and think about whether they actually want to change the world for the better or just continue to try to one-up religious people. If it’s the latter, they do not deserve our community’s support.

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.