Archive for the 'Politics' category

Not an entirely benign form of expression

Apr 04 2011 Published by under Politics, Uncategorized

In light of recent events, I'd like to repost this piece on book burning, originally from September 9, 2010. --PalMD


This week's post on book burnings spurred some interesting discussion (h/t Simon Owens).  One thread of these discussions is the nature of book burning itself.  From a completely ahistorical perspective, book burning is simply "speech".  The burning of a book by a private citizen, or group of citizens, is simply an act of expression akin to writing an editorial or giving a speech.  In the legal sense, this is probably true, and should be.  Anyone should be allowed to burn a book, a flag, a cracker---anything they want in accordance with local laws (e.g. ordinances regarding such things as fire, not designed to limit speech).

But book burning has a history, a context. State-sponsored book burnings in Nazi Germany may be the most extreme manifestation, but book burning as a way to intimidate and to "erase" ideas has a long history.  Just as publishing and disseminating ideas is a powerful tool, physically destroying these is both powerful and violent. While many literate people find abhorrent the idea of burning a book because of the ideas it contains, they may consider it a quirky but mostly-harmless form of expression.

It is not.

Book burning is a violent and threatening act.  This isn't to say it should be outlawed, but it must be acknowledged.  As with any such act, context is also important.  If I were to burn a journal of mine from seventh grade, no one would care.  But a pubic destruction of, say, the Qur'an is very different.  It is also different from the infamous "Crackergate" of PZ Myers.  Dr. Myers intentionally "desecrated" a communion wafer, and while this was offensive to many Catholics (and I found it personally distasteful) it did not create a significant threat.

Catholics are not a "despised minority" in the U.S.  It is unlikely that the public desecration of something Catholic would lead to an existential threat to the Catholic population (something that was very different a century ago when Catholics, especially Irish and southern Europeans, were systematically discriminated against).  This doesn't make Crackergate "OK", but it puts it on a different level in a continuum of intolerance.

Muslims, on the other had, are at risk.  The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. continues to escalate, creating real fear and real harm.  The planned Qur'an burning in Florida flames this hatred.  It creates a real threat to a minority already under siege.

And I find hatefully disingenuous those who say, "but Muslims aren't doing enough to stop terrorism!"  What is my friend and colleague who is a Muslim from Karachi supposed to do about "terrorism"?   She is already against violence. Is she supposed to join the Marines?  Is she supposed to give up her career and tour the country denouncing terrorism simply because someone who shares a (at least arguably) similar religious background did something bad?

Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent.

26 responses so far

Muslim Terrorism in the US: A Public Health Threat?

Mar 14 2011 Published by under Medicine, Politics

Representative Peter King (Bigot-NY) is chairing Congressional hearings on "homegrown Islamic terrorism." Terrorism is usually seen as a national security issue, but as a physician, I also wonder how terrorism might impact health.  If we are going to devote time, resources, and cause irreparable harm to our morals and to our image in the Islamic world, we should at least know the extent of the problem.

Public health problems, such as emerging infectious diseases, accidental deaths, and homicide can be tracked, and interventions can be designed to mitigate these problems.  The largest mitigation effort for terrorism has been law enforcement/national security, as it probably should be, but at the pointy end of each terrorist act is a dead or injured person.   What is the public health impact of terrorism?  Leaving aside anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other psychological factors, how many Americans are injured or killed by terrorists?  What proportion of these terrorists are "homegrown Muslims"?

According to once source, terrorism injures and kills very few Americans each year.  In fact, since 9/11, thirty-three Americans in the US have died as a result of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims.  Eleven Muslims were responsible for these deaths.   In that same time, there have been about 150,000 murders in the US.  Most terrorist plots in the US involving Muslim American perpetrators are disrupted early in the planning stage, often from sources within the Muslim American community.

In other words, national security and law enforcement, along with significant help from American Muslims, prevent most attacks, attacks that would constitute a small percentage of yearly homicides in the US.  Rather than being a major threat, the Muslim American community seems to be a major ally to law enforcement and national security.  Either way, there are so few acts of terrorism perpetrated by American Muslims that it is a theoretical threat to public health rather than an actual threat.

What about terrorist acts not perpetrated by Muslim Americans? According to the FBI (as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations) 95% of terrorist acts in the US are committed by non-Muslims.  Now, one could argue about "percentages", that is what percent of the Muslim community vs. the non-Muslim community is involved in domestic terrorism, but there are so few total terrorist acts that this statistic is probably meaningless.

Any rational human being can see that King's hearings are bigoted political grandstanding.  But from the point of prevention of terrorism in the US, they are also useless.


11 responses so far

Blood Libel: You keep using that word...

Jan 12 2011 Published by under Politics

Sarah Palin jumped the bigotry shark today, and bloggers are trying to explain just how offensive her comments really are.  Mark CC of Good Math Bad Math gives a terrific summary, but I can't help but give my take on this.

The shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and 19 others happened in a particular time and place, and history will look back at this context in trying to understand the event.  What Sarah Palin and others in the New Right are arguing is that context is meaningless; that their inflammatory, violent rhetoric is irrelevant (and that the left is just as bad, which is patently absurd---we hate guns, remember?).  This anhistoric view is typical, and is typified by Palin's cry of "blood libel".

Let's summarize events:

  • Right wing reactionaries use gun rhetoric and Christian imagery and language to speak to their base, including such statements as "don't retreat, reload", and posting pictures of "targeted" districts like Rep. Giffords' with gun sights on them.
  • Giffords is gunned down by a presumed nut-job who easily purchased a firearm and ammunition, a "right" favored by the New Right.  He drew and fired on her point blank range, rendering idiotic any claims that being personally armed could have helped her.
  • "Blood libel" is a specific term referring to anti-Jewish violence in Europe.  Christians claimed that Jews murdered Christian children for their blood, and Christians would use this to justify genocidal violence over the course of centuries, and culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust).  The Nazi's did not always use blood libel imagery, but they certainly encouraged it in their European collaborators, especially in Poland and Russia.
  • Giffords is a Democrat and Jewish.
  • Palin is a Republican and Christian.
  • Palin claims that calling her out on her violent rhetoric as having anything to do with political violence is "blood libel".
  • Irony meter explodes.

Palin, who favors eliminationist rhetoric directed at, in this case, a liberal Jewish Congresswoman, absolves herself of any responsibility for the violence just happens to bear close resemblance to her rhetoric.  Part of her reasoning is that it's just rhetoric, and the guy was a nut.  She then claims harm from the rhetoric leveled against her.  Irony meter reassembles and explodes again.

I'm not one to see an anti-Semite behind every door, but this is blatantly anti-Semetic rhetoric, giving a whole new appearance to the attack.  Palin's claims of not knowing what "blood libel" is are meaningless, as she has handlers who, in contrast to their boss, are educated.

They should all be ashamed.

But of course, they have no shame.

30 responses so far

Ratzinger's day of non-atonement

Sep 18 2010 Published by under Politics

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  For religious Jews, this is a critically important time of the year, and even many secular Jews use this as a time of increased self-scrutiny.  The religious purpose is to ask forgiveness: forgiveness of others for having wronged them, and forgiveness of God for having wronged Him.   But being truly contrite, and directly asking someone for forgiveness is difficult.   Setting aside a day (or week, really) to focus on the task highlights its difficulty and prevents us from hiding from the task.  This is a day focused on apology, on real introspection, a real attempt to contact those you've wronged and ask forgiveness---and to grant forgiveness to others.  This is not a time for "non-pologies", statements like, "I'm sorry you were offended by what I did."  This is a time for empathy, to wonder what it would be like to be the person you've wronged, and to apologize in a way meant not to make yourself feel better, but to comfort the ones you've wronged.

Yom Kippur is one of only a few days of the year when Jews light Yahrzeit (remembrance) candles for those who have died.  Perhaps at a time when Jews feel particularly close to God, and particularly in peril, they ask God not only to forgive them, but to take special care of those we can no longer care for.  And there can be no apologies and no forgiveness without memory.  We strive to remember our transgressions of the last year, but we cannot control the gates of memory once they have opened, so as we search ourselves, we also honor those who are left only as memories.

As we remember those who have died, many of us cannot help but think about the Shoah, the murder and destruction of Europe's Jewish community.  It's an unavoidable fact for many of us, especially as we see the diminishing numbers of survivors in our communities and wonder who will tell their stories when they are all gone.

This made some of the comments given by Joseph Ratzinger even more painful.  They were offensive to memory, and offensive to the idea of forgiveness.  They also injure us by making harder to grant forgiveness to a man who makes such hurtful public statements.

While it would be convenient to ignore the rantings of the head of a particular religious group, Ratzinger is a powerful and influential world leader.  Ignoring his pronouncements would be giving silent assent to his dangerous misreadings of a history that is still burnt into our minds and hearts.

Upon landing in the UK during the Days of Awe---the time between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur---this former head of the Inquisition (yes, those guys are still around) blamed all the woes of the world (including the Holocaust) on atheism, and somehow arrived at the conclusion that we'd all be better if we were religious.

The profoundly idiotic words that came from Josef Ratzinger are his. I know that many Catholics believe what he says, many do not. Given the autocratic nature of the Church, it would be terribly unfair to blame millions of Catholics for the demented utterances of their appointed---not elected---leader.

One of his UK speeches opens with the usual historical background, which as far as I know is correct, but then loses it.

The evangelisation of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.

There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.

Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.

I understand that this dribbling old ex- ("reluctant") Hitler Youth may be starting to lose it, but I'm sure he can see the inherent contradictions in these ridiculous statements.  Every religion thinks that their path is the only true path.  That Ratzinger could believe that religion is some sort of "guarantee of authentic liberty and respect" makes him either an idiot or a raving loon of a zealot.   Religion itself has never guaranteed any such thing.  People have used the language of religions to justify all sorts of action, good and bad, so it is de facto a guarantee of nothing.  The "evangelisation of culture" is inherently anti-humanistic, as it assumes that J. Ratzinger and those who agree with him have the only correct answers.  It is anti-equality and anti-liberty, as it sets up a dichotomy of those-who-agree-with-Joe, and everyone else.

Given that Ratzinger certainly picked out every word carefully, I'm guessing he actually means this stuff.  It's also reasonable to assume that he chose the phrase "dictatorship of relativism" very carefully. The word "dictatorship" is meant to evoke specific images: jack-booted Nazis, goose-stepping Communists, and other godless atrocities.  It is certainly not meant to evoke the beneficent dictatorship of the fatherly Pope (or the fires and racks of his Inquisition).

Ratzinger goes on to explain why we need religion:

Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.

I see no reason why secular voices which propose a "right to live" are "arbitrary".  The Declaration of Independence is no more or less arbitrary than a Papal Bull, and doesn't rely on adhering to a single creed.  That's part of the genius of it.

But the real offense to memory comes in another proximate speech.  The Holocaust was perpetrated by Europeans, led by German Nazis.  It was not an act inflicted upon them by a Nazi state that suddenly arose, creating its own values and beliefs.  Nazism worked in part because it affirmed the darker angels of European nature, allowing them---requiring them---to act on their generations of hatred.  To ignore these catholic (small "c") origins of the European murder of Jews is to be blind to history.

Ratzinger cannot claim ignorance, so statements like this one must have some purpose:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

Ratzinger uses this to frame his argument for religion in Europe.  He tells us that if we had been sufficiently religious (and by "we" he presumably means not me and my people, but everyone else), the Holocaust could not have happened.  But Nazis were not an "atheist" force.  They were the violent id of European history unfettered.  The systematic murder of Jews had been perpetrated by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians for centuries.  The Nazis allowed this to flourish, and put their industrial might behind it.  They did not create it.  This makes his next comments more ridiculous:

"I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

"As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny'

The attitude of the Nazis to Christians who spoke out was similar to their reactions to others who spoke out, except sometimes less extreme. There was, unfortunately, no large religious or secular movement in opposition of the Holocaust, and to claim otherwise is offensive. To use this false history as an argument against "atheist extremism" (whatever that may mean) is a crime against memory. But the crime continues:

"Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.

"In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.

"Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

To tell the world that religion is a shield against intolerance, and that secularism and atheism is the cause of intolerance is insane. But unlike true insanity, Ratzinger bears true culpability for his statements.

Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time of memory, introspection, and forgiveness.  Discovering and correcting my own faults and asking for forgiveness will be difficult, but I will try.  But I'm not ready to forgive those who commit dangerous offenses against against history and memory.  I'm just not that good a person, and for that, I ask forgiveness.

25 responses so far

A final (?) word on book burning

Sep 13 2010 Published by under Politics

I was pleased to see PZ Myers respond to my open letter about book burning.  (Digression: For all of you who are cheesed off about my grammar or my failure to respond to your one particular comment: There's a lot of comments, and yours was either not worthy of pursuing, or more likely, just lost in the shuffle.  And if you are terribly worried about grammar on the internet, STFU.)

This post is going to run on a bit, so I'll be dividing into two parts.

I: General thoughts on freedom of expression

PZ and I agree about many things, probably about most things when it comes to science and religion.  Religion, in and of itself, is irrational, and people who are religious should not be permitted to limit those of us who fail to believe in their gods.

But people, like religions, are irrational.  For whatever reasons, they believe.  I live in a world with six billion other people, most of whom hold some irrational beliefs, religious or otherwise.  In some parts of the world, the religious attempt to impose these views on others.  In Saudi Arabia, failing to believe in a particular form of Islam can get you killed.  In the U.S., failing to believe in particular forms of Christianity can get you killed. (Some would argue that it's different because in Saudi, the state kills you, but here in the U.S., if you get a botched abortion because of religion-inspired laws, you're just as dead.)

Given that most of my fellow human beings believe in things that I do not (supernatural or otherwise), I have to figure out how to get along in this world, and in doing so I have to look to history.  The founders of the U.S. did us some terrific favors by explicitly separating religion and the State.  This hasn't always worked well, because in a democracy, the religious majority can still win some battles (cf abortion, gay marriage, etc.).  But we've still remained much more secular than a good piece of the world.

If we take as a given that religion, as it intersects with secular interests, is a negative force (something which I will grant for the sake of argument only), then it must be dealt with.  One way to deal with it is to extend the French model, and outlaw public displays of religious (and often ethnocultural) identity.  If religion is confined to the home, its influence may be better contained.

But suppression of religion has its problems as well.  In addition to being oppressive, limiting religious expression can cause the religious to rise up and use the mechanisms of democracy or violence to release themselves from legal constraints.  But we shouldn't be "tolerant" simply because we fear violence. We should be tolerant because it is good and proper.

The way the founders chose to deal with the threat of religious diversity (and that's what it was: a threat---the threat posed by different belief systems vying to control secular life) was to recognize that religion exists, is valuable to most, and to say, "that's fine, but leave the State out of it."  They realized that people will continuously act in ways that would insult each other's beliefs, and understood that allowing this was the way to go.

I favor the U.S. system.  Although we continue to have problems with the religious majority attempting to impose its will on us all, we have been able to do better than most of the world.  This is a democracy, and to deny either the nonbelievers or believers of their right to believe or not believe is wrong.

But this American compromise  did not deal with a particular question: what if religion---all religion---is inherently detrimental to human well-being?  Those who believe this would, I imagine, work to end religion in all its forms.  When this is done through speech, this is perfectly congruent with American values and laws as regards to freedom of expression.  When done through action that constrains the rights of others, this is in direct opposition to American values and laws (depending on the action of course).

Burning of books is, and must always be, legal in the United States as a protected form of expression, rather than as an action that constrains the rights of others.

Now lets add a layer of historical context.  The Founders, in addition to ensuring our freedom of religion and expression, were concerned about tyranny, and not just the tyranny of a  monarchy.  They were concerned about the tyranny of a majority, whose combined political power could be used to oppress a minority, often through legal means.  The enumerated rights we enjoy were specifically designed to apply to all, regardless of minority or majority status.  This allows, for example, those of us who want to protest against a popular war to do so.  It allows those of us in the atheist minority to speak out against the beliefs of the majority, and prevents them from from passing laws forbidding this.

As Americans, we defend the most heinous forms of expression, knowing that doing so protects us all. We allow KKK rallies, Nazi marches, book burnings.  Given our inherent disgust, we often have to rely on others to keep us honest.  The ACLU is one such organization, bravely standing in the way of our own anti-democratic instincts.

But the tyranny of the majority can work extra-legally as well, and history has its lessons for us here.  Minorities, even despised minorities, have the right to exist and to disseminate their beliefs.  Atheists have the right to insult religion, Christians have the right to decry gay marriage, Muslims have the right to ask us to respect their religious texts---and we have the right to say "no".

And sometimes, we should say no.  If you truly believe that the greatest threat to the world is religion and those who believe, anything else I write is irrelevant.  But our own desire to express ourselves can be used to intimidate, oppress, and destroy.  Our own actions, even our own legal actions, can be wrong.

Throughout history, oppressors have used believer's attachment to sacred objects as a weapon, and they have often enrolled the majority perpetuating this oppression.  Burning Korans in Saudi Arabia is an act of rebellion.  Burning Korans in America (or France, the UK, etc) is not an act of rebellion against religious oppression, but a statement to an ethnic minority that they are despised.  It is legal, and should always remain so, but it has consequences.  Some of us have perspective on this.  In Europe, Jews were attacked by religious and secular institutions for centuries, and one of the ways the terror was maintained was through destruction of religious objects.  That an attachment to a religious object is "irrational" does not change the fact that preying on this belief to harm someone is wrong.  The ownership of the object is also irrelevant in this sense. This is not about property rights.

I think I made it quite clear in my original piece that I book burning are and should always be legally protected expression.  The reason people try to outlaw expression is that it is powerful---it has consequences.  If we act to burn books, to defend the burning of books, to prevent the burning of books, we are acknowledging the power of the act.  As responsible human beings we should, when exercising our rights, try to understand the consequences of our actions.

It may be a sad statement that I feel the need to voluntarily limit my own expression in order to prevent a greater harm.  But that's part of being a mature adult.  Yes, many Muslims would ask me to restrain myself from burning a Qur'an in order to please their god.  But refusing to burn it does not mean I am acknowledging their god, or acknowledging any legal abridgment of my rights.  It acknowledges that in the U.S., Muslims are currently a minority under threat, and an act like protesting a cultural center or burning a pile of  Qur'ans is cruel, intimidating, and selfish.

II: Specific thoughts on PZ's response

I agree with PZ entirely when he reminds us that "we have a right to destroy our own property."  As far as I'm aware, few rational people are arguing otherwise, rendering this statement a non sequitur.  The real question is what are the consequences of burning a pile of Qur'ans and how should good people react to it.  And this is where PZ loses me:

Informing me that the Muslims are genuinely and sincerely and deeply offended is not informative — contrary to the suggestion that I must have an empathy deficit to be unaware of that, I know that and appreciate the fact that their feelings are hurt and they are angry and outraged. My point is that I don't care, and neither should anyone else.

If PZ thinks that burning Qur'ans makes a statement, and this statement is worth the consequences, what is the statement and what are the consequences?  He admits that one of the consequences is to make Muslims hurt and angered.  He agrees with Glenn Beck et al. that we are in danger of having Muslims enforce their practices on us.  If the real issue were the imposition of Qur'anic beliefs on the rest of us, I would also be enraged.  Just as when the New Right tries to impose its belief onto our laws, we should fight any religion's similar impositions. I would agree with the sentiment that how this plays abroad is, in the long run, irrelevant.  True religious zealots will hate us or not, independent of how we behave.  But I also do care if my actions make people feel hurt and angry because I'm not a total douche.

PZ argues (or so it I read it) that the correct frame for this is that failing to burn a Qur'an is surrender to the whims of kooky religious zealots.

No one is saying you can't irrationally revere some religious object — we're just saying you can't tell others that they must irrationally revere your religious object, and you especially can't tell others that their cheap, mass-produced copy of your religious object must be treated in some special way.

I see it differently, from a different historical perspective.  While he looks at 2000 years or so of theocratic imposition, I see a century or so of majority attacks on minorities.  I'll admit it is an imposition to have to tolerate irrational beliefs, but as he says, "It is not a crime to offend others, and in fact, it's pretty much a natural consequence of having diverse cultures."  When I tolerate an irrational belief, I am also tolerating other human beings and their desire to be treated with respect, regardless of the irrationality of their beliefs.  I refuse to dehumanize them simply because they believe in fairies.

There is an intersection of beliefs and actions that is difficult to reconcile.  Most Christians profess to believe many of the things I believe.  For example, they have an injunction against murder.  They often ask all of us to follow that belief.  Some Christians also insist that I should ignore the humanity and rights of homosexuals.  I refuse to adhere to the latter, but I will the former, even though it will as an unintended consequence adhere to Christian beliefs.

The latter part of PZ's response is frankly patronizing and dehumanizing.

The West is still barging in militarily and causing devastation. Muslims in those countries should be righteously pissed off, but not about something as trivial as copies of their favorite book being destroyed.

That's empathy, too — the awareness that Muslims are human beings who deserve better, and that watching them get distracted by such pointless noise is doing them harm.


Religion infantilizes people. It makes them humorless and blind to others' ideas. We're doing no favor to them by indulging their unrealistic and impossible dreams of controlling everyone else's life.

I'm not sure why PZ, a spokesperson for atheists, also feels he can appoint himself spokesperson for all the poor, deluded Muslims.  This over-generalization, this dehumanization, is the sort of thinking that blinds someone to the harm caused by, say, burning the books held sacred by an at-risk minority.  PZ simply redefines the battle: those Muslims shouldn't be offended, because it's our right to burn the Qur'an, and they shouldn't believe this nonsense in the first place, and I'm really helping to free them.  They should thank me.

If you lack empathy, if you come from a position of privilege, if you are not the member of a minority with a history of significant persecution, it may seem that simple.  It is not.  It is and always should be legal to burn a pile of paper with words, or a shmate on a stick.   But for many people in this world, the burning of their books is followed closely by the burning of their houses of worships, their homes, and their person.  What PZ and his followers are arguing is that their acknowledged right to engage in this particular form of expression is always more important that the desire of others to feel safe.

46 responses so far

Open letter to PZ Myers

Sep 11 2010 Published by under Politics

Dear Paul,

I've read your writing for years, and have generally admired it.  While I haven't always agreed with you, we've generally seen eye-to-eye on the big issues.  It is out of my respect for you that I'd ask you to re-examine some of your thoughts about the recent non-burning of the Koran.

Of course it's legal to burn anything (well, usually not cannabis). But speech has consequences. These consequences are not always apparent to people, who may be blinded by their own beliefs, by their own position of privilege, etc. Your careless response to the aborted Koran burning fails on many levels, but especially on the level of empathy.

I've already argued that burning books is a form of expression that carries a lot of baggage.  You may feel like a despised minority due to your atheism, but I gotta tell you, from my perspective as an atheist and an ethnic minority, you're full of shit on this one.  Despite your atheism, you comes from a position of privilege that you are  perhaps too incredulous to see.   The first clue to this blindness comes early in your post:

People just aren't getting it; they're so blinded by an inappropriate attachment to magic relics that they're missing the real issues.

Yeah, but no.  The primary problem from the perspective of a white, male, employed atheist sitting in a house munching on lutefisk and aqvavit (don't you love stereotypes)  is that of people's inappropriate attachment to objects.  From the perspective of the poor, deluded people, it's the threat implied by the action of destroying something sacred to them.

Perhaps you didn't mean to erect such an enormous straw man to fight, but review this statement.  Humor me.

The problem isn't a few books being burned; that's not a crime, and it doesn't diminish anyone else's personal freedoms. The problem is a whole fleet of deranged wackaloons, including the president of the USA in addition to raving fundamentalist fanatics, who think open, public criticism and disagreement ought to be forbidden, somehow.

And seriously, this whole silly contretemps would have evaporated if a few people learned to shrug their shoulders and react rationally instead of feeding the fury with Serious Pronouncements and Reprovals.

Paul, the problem isn't the legality.  It does diminish people's personal freedoms.  It diminishes their sense of safety and security.  If I become afraid to practice my religion because of violent bigotry, I'm less free.  To tell me to get over it is some seriously fucked up victim-blaming.

I'm tempted to ask you the following question, but also afraid to.  If I could legally obtain a Torah for you, would you burn it? (I wouldn't but it's a thought experiment.)

If the answer is "no", then you're a hypocrite.  If the answer is "yes", then you have no understanding of history, of oppression, of fear.

Whether or not you think it appropriate, people imbue objects with meaning.  Why else try to save your house from burning down?  You have insurance, don't you?  But most people don't want to lose a house and the objects it contains because they have meaning.  Religious objects are no more or less irrationally revered than family photos.  People give them meaning.

It's appropriate to call out people on harmful beliefs, to criticize Catholic beliefs about homosexuality, Torah passages about rape, Koran suras about violence.  But collecting and burning religious texts is not simple criticism, it is an attack on the people who hold these texts dear, no matter how irrational they are.

To ignore this is to betray a sense of bigotry, one to which you may be blind.  Think of this as a gentle reminder.

In friendship and collegiality,


193 responses so far

Book Burnings

Sep 08 2010 Published by under Politics

Not long ago, I wrote a long piece about the resurgence of fascism as a mainstream political movement in the U.S.   The battle over an Islamic center in New York could perhaps be seen as an isolated incident by those who are completely blind, but as mosques and Muslims are attacked across the U.S., a trend has emerged: it’s open season on anyone demonized by the New Right.  As Sarah Palin yells, “don’t retreat, reload,” a line that brings cheers from her 2nd Amendment-loving but 14th Amendment-hating followers, real people are reloading.

Fascism incites its followers to demonize the Other, to physically attack him and all he stands for.  Once it becomes the new normal to attack Muslims, burn their books, and forbid their houses of worship, all it takes to spread the hate further is to accuse enemies of the cause of being Muslims or Muslim-sympathizers.  The spread of lies about President Obama's origins, religious beliefs, etc. aren't just the rantings of a few nut jobs. They are part of an organized effort to create hate, division, and to delegitimize a lawfully elected and constituted government.

It's often been said that all that is required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.  But that ignores two facts: bad people are doing plenty, and other bad people, who wish to be seen as "mainstream" are keeping mum.    Where are the "sane" Republicans and others on the right condemning the planned burning of Qur'ans by a Florida pastor?  Some religious leaders and Democrats have spoken out, but where is Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the other leaders of the Right?  John Boehner made a tepid, general statement about it, similar to one being used about the so-called Ground Zero mosque:

“Just because you have a right to do something in America does not mean it is the right thing to do. We are a nation of religious freedom, we’re also a nation of tolerance,” Boehner said. “I think in the name of tolerance people ought to really think about the kind of actions they’re taking.”

No, John, this is what you need to say:

" Book burning has no place in a civilized society.  If we do not speak out loudly against this act, we are all equally culpable of this hateful act."

Friends of mine of a more conservative bent love to rationalize away the most disturbing trends on the right with such phrases as, "no one listens to those crazies," and, "that's not what real Republicans are about."


Until American conservatives explicitly condemn the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks, the New Right will continue to rise to the top of the GOP, will be The Right in America.  These folks aren't just going away.  As long as the GOP and other conservatives tolerate these new fascists, they are guilty: guilty of hate crimes, of bigotry, of destroying American ideals.

I accuse you, all of you on the right today, and call on you today to publicly renounce the New Right and their hate-filled rhetoric.  If you can't do this, you are not an enabler of fascism---you are a fascist.

47 responses so far

Fascism and the New Right

Aug 30 2010 Published by under Politics

As the years that separate us from European fascism increase, there is an growing tendency to use the term “fascism” in an imprecise way, taking away from it its potency.  In fact, it has become so insipid as to have lost much of its meaning.  Many will hear the word and think “Nazi”, but this is a gross oversimplification, an undue narrowness.  The word “fascism” is at once too broad and too precise, as Umberto Eco has written.

There are good reasons to use this term more carefully, to apply it judiciously.  But to do this, we have to understand what it really means.  The term itself arose out of Italy and described a totalitarian regime that had little else in common with Nazism.  That doesn’t mean it cannot be applied to other political systems.  As Eco has pointed out, many of these systems share common features, or share common ideals or origins.  But recognizing these, especially in the early stages of a movement can be difficult.  It was not so difficult in Nazi Germany, with its explicit inculcation of the entire population beginning at birth, but Nazism is not the only type of fascism.

I’m proceeding from the assumption that all fascism is bad, something to be prevented and fought.  Not everyone will believe this, else fascism would hold little popular appeal.   But I believe it, and I also believe that the New Right in the U.S. represents a fascist risk unlike any we’ve seen since the 1940s, when World War II largely destroyed the proto-fascist movements in the U.S.  Greater even than McCarthyism, the ideology espoused by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and those who hang with them are a threat to American democracy, a fascist movement further evolved than many might think.

Fascism, while populist in a sense, does not have to originate in “the people”.  As Eco noted of Italian Fascism:

The Fascist Party was born boasting that it brought a revolutionary new order; but it was financed by the most conservative among the landowners who expected from it a counter-revolution.

This has certainly been true of the Tea Party movement. While the Tea Party does not clearly resemble Nazism and is not a copy of older fascist movements, it shares with them many of the characteristics of what Eco calls “Ur-Fascism”, the components that go in to the formation and perpetuation of most fascist movements.

Not all fascists have all of the characteristics of Ur-Fascism, but most, when considering the “template”, are recognizable as fascist.  The danger is not in under-applying the term, but in failing to recognize it early.  While Eco’s analysis is certainly not the only thing to say on fascism, it does serve as a valid and useful guide.

Cult of tradition

Americans certainly have a love of tradition, a uniting national identity.  We have our own liturgy in our founding documents.  But this is not cult-like.  Eco describes a traditionalism that is false, in a sense, in that it combined mutually incompatible traditions, creating from them a unifying identity.  Believing in the Bill of Rights, while simultaneously calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment; believing in the Constitutional protection of religion but denying the secular origins of this principle, and creating a false mythology of the Founders as Believers---these create a false, new American tradition.

Rejection of Modernity

Modern ideas, such as the expansion of the term “equality” to explicitly apply to everyone, is rejected out-of-hand as violating fictional traditions.  Rejection of the rights of gays to marry, of women to have equal pay, of Blacks to frequent any business they wish---these would seem to violate our founding principles, but when you create your own fictions, such as the influence of the 10 Commandments on American law, then contradiction is meaningless.  Contradiction only exists when historical truths are acknowledged.  When they become fluid, all bets are off.

Cult of action for action’s sake

The preservation of the 2nd Amendment, in contrast to the destruction of the 14th, fits in well with the current shortage of ammunition in the U.S. The fetishism of firearms, at a time in history where our true state of national security has rendered them moot, is telling.  It not only speaks of a powerlessness felt by the New Right, but serves as an explicit threat to those who would dare disagree with them. Since personal firearms are irrelevant in fighting foreign enemies, their only real use can be the fight against domestic ones.

Disagreement is treason

The New Right knows, cynically, that their ideas cannot stand up to honest analysis, and so demonize those who disagree with them.  It creates a Muslim Non-American of the President; a rampaging horde of immigrants, and tells us that to vote for universal health care is a choice between freedom and tyranny.

This is part and parcel of the fear of diversity, the inherent racism in fascist ideas.  There must always be an “other” and in the case of the New Right, the other is distinctly brown.

Appeal to frustrated middle class

During times of economic uncertainty, someone must be to blame for the decline in what seemed to be endless prosperity.  Despite the fact that wealth in the U.S. has continued to concentrate in the wealthiest, these same wealthy successfully convince the middle class that it is really concentrating among The Others, those who are taking “our” jobs, raising taxes, etc.  Despite the fact that our tax structure favors the rich rather than the middle or lower economic classes, it is the poorest or brownest that must be to blame.  Them, and the bankers, whose names all seem to share some ethic similarities when repeated over and over.

Creation of a shared social identity

The New Right is distinctly envious of ethnic minorities and their shared sense of identity.  Since much of the “redneck” vote lacks such an identity, then they must be united by having been born in the same country.  The are Real Americans, and everyone else, by definition, is not.  Real Americans aren’t afraid of the Confederate Flag.  They aren’t afraid of immigrants.  They aren’t afraid of gays. They aren’t afraid.    Anyone who would object to the Stars and Bars or to anti-gay rhetoric must fail to understand what it is to be a Real American.

Sense of humiliation

Rather than the meme of the Eternal Rich Jew which was common in European fascism, the New Right is humiliated by the underclass who is ruining them economically, by making them pay taxes, by collecting welfare, by funding public schools.  And when One of Them succeeds, perhaps even becoming President, it is because the system has favored them unfairly.

Life as struggle

Mein Kampf spoke of constant struggles.  Eco noted that in Fascist Italy, it was taught that there were always more enemies to fight, that warfare was the default form of existence.  This is how we prove our strength, our superiority.

This fits in well with the Christian Apocalyptic thinking that seems to dovetail so well with the New Right.  It also fits well with the War on Terror, a war that is eternal, because it can never truly be won.

Popular Elitism

When you accept that you are a Real American, you are among the exceptional, the elite.  You are no longer among the weak, the degenerate.  Those who are become worse than the enemy, because the weaken they state from the inside.


To succeed in constant war and struggle, and to remove the taint of failure, everyone is a hero, every man a Real Man.  To be a real man, there can be no “deviant” sexual practices, no equality for women, no backing down.

Will of the people through the One

The will of the people is paramount in fascism, but the only way the People can have a united will is to express it through a single voice, a Leader, not through the irrational and fickle exercise of elections and representation.  This can lead to the election of improper leaders who must be dealt with.  If the people were foolish enough to elect a non-American, then this non-American must be de-legitimized and removed.  So-called representatives who don’t act like Real Americans must be impeached and removed before they can consolidate their power through another election.  Congresses and Parliaments are inherently corrupt.


Fascism distorts language.  Suddenly, the lawful payment of lawfully-enacted taxes becomes “oppression” and those who were not born here become “illegals.”  News outlets belonging to the New Right use this new language regularly.  The economic crisis, clearly precipitated by the policies of the right, is now the fault of these “illegal taxes” rather than failed policies of deregulation and destruction of progressive taxation.

Fascism is in some ways quite democratic;  a critical mass of people must believe in it for it to take hold, but once it does, consent of the governed is no longer needed.  The apparatus of the State will take care of obtaining consent, with the help of Real Americans.   Beck, Bachmann, Palin, and others are not Nazis.  Not all fascism is Nazism.  But they are fundamentally un-democratic, believing in the power of a mythical People in the service of a mythical America, one which they have built in the minds of their followers.

This New America is not one I wish to live in, and for it to flourish all we must do is nothing.

44 responses so far

The real thing

Aug 28 2010 Published by under Politics

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

4 responses so far

When "compromise" really means "STFU"

Aug 17 2010 Published by under Politics

As regular readers may have noticed, I don't often write about politics. It's not that I don't care, it's just not my thing. I can only keep up with and write about so many topics. But when someone uses the opinion page of what can arguably be called our national newspaper to continually spew irrational, hate-filled idiocy onto my laptop, well, sometimes enough is enough.

Such is the case with Ross Douthat. I think the guy styles himself as some sort of moderate conservative, and a bridge builder: someone who can see both sides of an issue and find the compromise. What he does in fact, though, is find the reactionary side and his side and then argues for a compromise between reactionary hate mongers and what his own biased mind thinks is slightly more rational.

In his latest piece, Douthat notes that their are "two Americas". Most recently, this phrase was used by presidential candidate John Edwards to note the growing divide between "haves" and "have-nots". This is not what Douthat means. He describes the first America as:

An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

If he had stopped right there, he would have had a very short Op-Ed piece, but one that reiterates basic American Constitutional ideals. But Ross just can't shut up.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

That is a great lead-in to a discussion of why assimilation, while often desirable, is a complicated issue, and one that is more about our own biases than about Constitutional ideals.   And he does go on to contrast the high ideals of the first America with the parochial xenophobia of the second.  But then he reveals which America he thinks is really the "right" one:

But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success.

No.  No they don't.  He admits that the second America is xenophobic and discriminatory.  What could it possibly have to offer other than hate and intolerance?  His examples are equally unfortunate:

The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

Bullshit.  The Johnson Immigration Act was a purely racist piece of legislation built on incorrect but popular ideas about eugenics, and it led to the deaths of perhaps millions of Europeans who were denied entry to the U.S.  because of their ethnicity.

His senseless screed is in service of his ideas on the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy.  He argues for the first America as the carrot, the second as the stick.  The first welcomes our Muslim brothers, the second demands that they give up their identity if they want to be real Americans (forgetting that many are not recent immigrants and that Muslims have been here for a very long time).

He doesn't argue that this same argument applies to our own nativist hate groups.  He doesn't mention that violent, hate-filled rhetoric that happens to come from American-born Protestants is also "anti-American"; he can't argue this, because he just finished telling us that Protestant Americans are always right, even when they argue against the Constitutional protections of religious practice.

When you compromise with reactionary, anti-American hate-mongers, some would call it "negotiating with terrorists".  I wonder why Ross only sees the hate on one side?

11 responses so far

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