Saturday, November 26, 2011

"New Atheism"- As new as your great-great-great-great grandfather

I've seen more and more things talking about the "New Atheists" spring up, and since I have a blog and opinions and things like that, I figured I might as well take a stab at it.

"New Atheism" is perhaps the most misleading term I could possibly think of to describe this movement. By New Atheism, I guess I'm going to mean the post-2000's marketing ploy that includes such illustrious old white dudes as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Dennett (always forget his first name). It seems to be a remarkably British phenomenon in terms of leadership, but it has recently had a large upswing in rhetoric from around America, so I guess that's cool? But the reason why it is misleading is because these are honestly not only the same arguments that we've been hearing for the past 500 odd years, but because they are seriously outdated, and problematic in many other ways.

First, I can see that people with no belief in a God have a lot of erasure in society, but can we back up a bit from the oppression olympics that is the "people wouldn't vote for an atheist President" thing?  First- since I've heard many times the argument that our Founders weren't 'really' theists, it seems like we have already had atheists in governmental power, which undermines this argument. When arguing for systemic oppression, presidential leadership might show that you are coming from a very privileged place when discussing what your oppression is. Second, if you are going to argue for being super Oppressed (TM), I think it's funny to leave out a multitude of oppressed groups (trans* people, convicts, the mentally ill) in the survey. I guess that is a bit off topic, but just something I feel like deserves a little notice.

The more frustrating aspect of this whole "New Atheist" thing that makes the name of it even more ironic is it's complete dependence on the cultural precepts, narratives, and memes (see, I know Dawkins too) of Modernism. If we were going to call anything the "New Atheism" it should have been the post-modernists! But no, the New Atheists are the same people trotting out the same old tired arguments and committing the same problematic colonialist attitudes and using the same Protestant idea of secularism. You can see this because many of these New Atheist leaders (and they are leaders since they are profiting immensely from the capitalistic orgy of book selling that comes from disseminating their ideas) are, aside from their Atheism, rather conservative in most other areas.

Richard Dawkins, King of the 'Atheists', recently told a woman that she should not complain about sexism because of (what amounts to) scary brown people in other countries. Christopher Hitchens is a neo-conservative who is down for the whole "deposing other governments to spread democracy" kind of culturally imperialistic foreign policy. Sam Harris is arguing that morals can be taken from science, which is basically how the entire 'eugenics' thing happened. I don't know anything about Dennett, so whatever. And also, do you remember the last time that a book on this subject got published by a woman or queer person or person of color, or non-Westerner? How oddly coincidental that the same people propagating modernist, colonialist ideas would continue to be from the same privileged groups!

And it's really not only from the leaders of this movement that I hear things like this. I mean, since I have worked in radical politics/queer whatevers, I am many times the minority insofar as I am a theist. Luckily, queer activism has read (or pretended to read) post-colonial authors like Fanon and Said; I mean, most of our theory is based on Foucault and that kind of thing. But I have worked, and hung out a lot with people who are from this ideological position, and it seems to not only adhere to, but to revel in its problematic modernisms that have been questioned for the past 50 years.

Examples: at my old undergraduate school, the atheist group had a major event called "Reasonfest." Now, I think that is indicative of an uncritical adoption of the 'Enlightenment' (but also medieval) concepts of Reason, progress, and other things like that that have been used to culturally imperialize a large amount of the not Western world. Look at how these groups treat the idea of Islam! It is one that is completely in line with the historical view that had been held by Christians/Protestants, and one based in the idea that we should just go over to other cultures and enlighten them with our wonderful white knowledge. Excellent.

The fetishization of Reason and Science (with capitals) is part of the reason that many of these people I have talked to have the most difficulty dealing with my gender identity. They don't question what Science says, it is simply true, and therefore there are two sexes, two genders, and you don't have the right or reason to cross from one to the other. Usually, the 'non-religious' problems people have with the idea of gender-queer are much more loudly given.

I'm not saying that this makes them bad people, because they are only being the same as the mainstream society. My problem is that somehow, they feel like they have only rational knowledge that is indisputable, which is completely ridiculous. Everyone makes unfalsifiable faith claims about many things, most of them having been donated to us by our culture. I will talk about this later, probably, but how much more provable is it that we have "natural rights" or that people are in some metaphysical sense "equal" than that there is a God who created everything. Believe whichever one (or collection) you want, but that is not some sort of objective fact. Even the idea of personhood is a faith claim. So please stop acting like you're better than everyone else.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Honestly, what is wrong with people?

Hey, I talk about rape a bit here, so if you're not into that, then maybe sit this one out, cool?

Many people think that I am too kind to people from history. Well, except for Thomas Jefferson, because seriously. But generally, I take the view that if you look at where people were coming from in history, sometimes it  might help us understand that some people who seem totally backwards today might have even been progressive in their time. I guess I do this out of some sort of ideal of 'fairness'/'mercy', but also some sort of egoism. Because I know that most likely I am doing something unspeakably evil. Either things I'm aware of (like buying shirts at the Gap made of slave labor), or not aware of. So I guess if I'm saying that those people were trying to work with what they have, maybe people will give me and our time the same courtesy.

But when I think about some things that have happened recently, I can already think: No way. People from the future, I give you full ability to judge American society in 2011 to be thoroughly messed up. I guess the specific incidents that I have to mention here are the treatment of the Occupy Oakland camp, versus the Penn State Riots.

Occupy Oakland may not be perfect, and it might even be illegal. But guess what? The law that they are breaking is 'Illegal camping', so unless you are some sort of legalistic authoritarian, I don't see how the legality of the protest trumps the actual substance. It's like a person making a perfectly reasoned argument, and the other pointing out a grammatical mistake; it's irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Let alone that public spaces should be open to people anyways. But let's say that Illegal camping should be some sort of sacrosanct law that we have built our society off of (as opposed to say... free speech). The police used tear gas and riot squads attacking people with batons and rubber bullets. Unless this is how illegal camping is generally solved, which I don't believe is true, I don't get why it's being used here. I mean seriously, what the hell?

I mean, in UC Berkeley, the students were beaten (or nudged, if you believe the Associated Press) with batons because they were committing the violent action of linking their arms. I feel like I have to be in some sort of bizarro world where everyone in power must either be incredibly stupid, or just the worst liars on the entire damn planet. God, you'd think that Red Rover would be priority 1 in our schools if this were the case.

However, you have riots in Penn state. Now, let's just stop there and examine why these riots are happening. If they were part of Occupy, I'm sure the police would have gone all sorts of Kent state on everyone, and the news coverage of it would have been nonstop until the media people died from some combination of starvation and rage-induced strokes. But that's not the case. They were in fact, rioting because Joe Paterno stepped down because he had been protecting a child rapist.




Are we at such a nadir as a society that we are honestly having "Pro Child Rape" riots/rallies? I don't care what anyone says otherwise, rioting because your friend/leader/guy you never even met got in trouble for covering up rape is a 'Pro-Rape" event. This reminded me of the "we killed Osama Bin Laden" group celebrations, but angrier. And at least I could even understand the sentiment behind that, even if it was a bit blood thirsty. But when you're sitting down, thinking about yourself, and you come across the thought "You know, I think I'm more concerned about college football than children being raped", at what point does this not ring some sort of bell? I'm not saying that you have to stop liking football, but at least don't treat it as a "break a few eggs/rape a few kids to make an omelette" situation. I mean, I didn't even know this kind of person existed. Jesus Christ.

Not only that, but they broke things and turned over vans! What? Where was the tear gas then? I mean, do I really have to believe that the police are more sympathetic to raping children than to solving income inequality? Because that is seriously the implication of this differential treatment.

I mean, if you're not embarrassed to live in a country that's priorities seem to be so clear of any actual compassion or inkling of justice, then I don't know what to do for you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Man, people in the past used to be dicks

Ok, so I have talked to a fair amount of people about this, but I am about to blow everyone's mind. Not really, but you might find this also an interesting thing that happens.

There is a type of writing, usually essays, that I enjoy a lot. But there isn't really a word for the idea that groups them all together, being all sorts of styles (plays, essays, poetry, novels, letters) and from all sorts of eras and other things. But to put it in a plain way: I love reading about people I like, writing about other people I like, but the first person hates the second person. This might seem like a weird, not very much done thing. But it totally is, because even if the people in the past were more cultured than us (a dubious claim), they were equally capable of hating other people in petty ways.

So, a good example of this is that George Orwell wrote a series of essays on Salvador Dali. I like both of those people in different ways, but damn. George Orwell hated Salvador Dali SO MUCH. Like, 3 or 4 essays worth of just talking about how he thinks Salvador Dali is not only a terrible artist, but a terrible evil person. Orwell did one about Gandhi too, and that is a little less vitriolic, if a bit more realistic. But it's the Dali essays that are gold; sometimes he just tells stories about Dali that are probably not even true. The best evidence of their falseness? The fact that he is taking Dali at his word.

Others include a Sartre book about Gustav Flaubert called "L'idiot de sa famille" (The idiot of his family). Why didn't I buy this book? It has to be promising, but I don't have the time to hear about how much Sartre hated Flaubert. He also called Foucault "The last rampart of the bourgeoisie", which is awesome insofar as I wish I could be a petty indignant person and have my opinions get cited on Foucault's wikipedia page. Speaking of Foucault, there is no greater fount of this type of writing than Nietzsche, but I already liked his style since it mainly consists of ranting ALL THE TIME.

So I'm at an impasse, because what do you even call that grouping of things? I mean, Nietzsche, Orwell, Shakespeare (Henry VI-Joan of Arc), Jerome (really, pretty much anyone. I imagine I could find something he said about Augustine), Virginia Woolfe, it kind of spans all of time and style. I guess maybe polemic? But that's not their intended purpose, as much as just...

You know what? It doesn't really matter. If anyone has name ideas, then they can make it up. I'm just saying, try to read stuff like this sometimes, because it's awesome.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What is violence? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me no more.

Ok. So in case you have either been living under some sort of rock, or refuse to speak about politics with other people, then the chances are that you have heard something about Occupy Wall Street (or you can adjust the name for whatever city you live in). I've had too many discussions about the merits and disadvantages and privileges of this group of protests to count, and I'm not exactly sure that it is helpful to put them up on the internet to argue over. Whether or not it has merit, it is definitely here now.

What interests me about these protests right now is that they are almost universally non-violent. And there is the sentence that gets me hung up: I feel like what we think of as violence, especially in terms of political action, isn't really something people discuss very much. And that is certainly an important definition to come to some sort of agreement to, isn't it? I mean, sure we might not necessarily completely agree, but it seems odd to just think that everyone intuitively knows exactly what 'violence' means, and that we all share the same definition. If I've learned anything at all from what I've studied, it is that assuming people define things the same way as you is a one way ticket to cliched negative outcomes-ville.

"But Joel, surely violence is easy to understand. Why do we have to overanalyze EVERYTHING?" I might hear someone say. Well, first of all random rhetorical device: back off. Second, unless there is something that I am missing, I don't think that I can quite get a cohesive definition of violence from the people I'm listening to. I hear lots of things called violent that seem 'on the edge'; less often, I hear things that I just automatically think are not violent. Putting glitter on people against their will? I'm sorry, that is not violent in any way that does justice to the concept. But, I guess it might just be easier to talk about what is intuitively violent first and then try to see how far we can expand those borders.

I think we can all agree that unprovokedly physically harming someone else is violent. Well, maybe politicians can't, but I try not to associate with people who lead countries into preemptive war. At the very least, we can say that a person who shoots someone else, or conspires to murder, or even mugs another, is committing a violent act.

I'm a pacifist, so I'm also going to include self defense as a violent act. Now, hear me out, because most people think that this is not legitimate. I'm not saying that a person who is defending themselves is equally morally culpable as the person who first initiated violence, but I am saying that self defense is a violent act. Not all acts of violence are equal to each other in terms of moral culpability.

Does causing mental harm constitute as violence? There are cases where it does seem to be violent. Assault, death threats, other such things seem as violent and harmful as any kick in the gut. The torment of bullying can in many cases be worse in the long run for the person being bullied than simple physical harm. Emotional violence has a way of being adopted by the victim, and that can be a much worse consequence than broken bones.

Of course, right now I'm just focusing on things that are done intentionally. The question of unintentional actions is so complicated that I don't even know what to do with it. I might look at it later, but for now we can stick with something a bit easier to discuss.

I also want to note that simple offense doesn't count as emotional violence. To use an example: a racist person might be distressed to have a person who is a minority move into their neighborhood. Does that make the person moving there violent? I don't think so. This is also something that might have to be looked at later: whether offense is just or not.

In any case, we're back to the idea of what is violent. Intentionally harming people physically or mentally is violent. Is throwing glitter on someone violent? I don't think that it quite reaches the levels of harm that I would  call violence; that is to say, I don't see the harm. if maybe someone had a deathly fear of glitter, that might be violent. As the case is, it's merely a flashy way of telling someone you disagree.

Is Yelling violent? There are cases of it being violent, but  there is nothing inherent to it to be violent. We yell over crowded streets, we even yell at someone when we are angry. That's not violent; the content of the yelling is what is violent. This is, of course, not universal: if you find someone who always reacts negatively to yelling, then using this to your advantage to harm them would be violent. But what I mean is that nothing about raising your voice is inherently violent.

Now, the real issue that I want to bring up is something that has been brought up multiple times concerning the Occupy Oakland movement: is vandalism violent? From the news coverage, and even the spoken words of many protesters, the assumption is that vandalism is in fact (always) violent. I want to challenge that idea a bit. Vandalism might hurt people financially, but to compare a company paying a couple of hundred dollars for a window to someone getting murdered seems a bit crass. Surely vandalism (such as hate speech and cross burning) can be parts of violence, but it is the threat, not the act that is violent.

Thought experiment: go out to the woods alone, and take a large window with you. When you are in a space that it is safe to do so, smash it. Don't tell anyone you did it. Did you just commit a violent act? If you don't think so, then it seems to follow that smashing windows isn't violent in and of itself. Therefore whether vandalism is violent is based on whether you do it to harm someone physically or emotionally. Vandalizing a bank might be a jerk move that is terrible PR for your organization, but no one is really thinking that the CEO of Chase is going to be heartbroken or scared for his life. Let alone physically hurt.

The interesting thing about it is, that by talking about vandalism like it is violence, we are basically saying that property and not alive objects are the same as people and animals. We say that harming either is the same class of action, we equal moral weight. It seems to be an aspect of our society that while we treat people like they are objects, we treat objects like humans deserve. In fact, if we had half as much respect for people as we did for corporations or physical property, then maybe we would be improving the world a bit.