Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Archive for December, 2008

The obligatory Blagojevich post from a former Illinoisan

Posted by Kevin on December 28, 2008

“If the state of Illinois politics today doesn’t demonstrate the need for the people to embrace and build the Green Party – a true party of, by and for the people – I don’t know what will.” -Rich Whitney, 2006 (and possibly 2010) IL Green gubernatorial candidate, in a statement on the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Ok, so the word on the street these days is that Rod Blagojevich is a corrupt douchebag. It’s a big enough story that I doubt I need to go into the details. Let’s just accept it as a given for the moment that Blago is, in fact, a corrupt douchebag. My question is: Is that really news?

It was obvious he was corrupt as hell years ago. The Dems didn’t have much of a problem with pay-for-play when Blago was up for reelection in 2006, at least not enough of one to actually do something about it. I remember well how progressives then didn’t have time to worry about little things like corruption, and couldn’t vote for Rich Whitney, because the most important thing in the world was beating Judy Baar Topinka. This is an archetypal example of what you end up with by voting for the lesser of evils instead of the people you actually agree with.

Also: how is this not just a particularly brazen example of the sort of behavior that’s considered business as usual in Springfield (or in Washington for that matter)? As Christopher Hayes notes over at The Nation: “I’m not defending this at all. Let me make that clear. I’m saying that politicians trade things for fundraising help all the time, it’s half of what they do. So where’s the line where that becomes illegal?”

It bothers me that thus far this scandal has been presented by the establishment as just one particularly rotten apple, rather than a symptom of a wider problem. Of course, both the Democrats and Republicans would rather we think that if we just get rid of this one guy, everything will be fine. Not that I think Blago shouldn’t be impeached. But that should be the first step, not the last. One of the biggest other steps is of course serious reform of Illinois’ pretty much nonexistent campaign finance regulations. In addition, Illinoisans should be getting rid of not just Blago but all the corrupt politicians, starting with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones.

This situation presents us with a test of how possible it really is to work within the two-party system. If the Dems, who control pretty much all the levers of power in Illinois, don’t push for an end to pay-for-play politics now, there’s no reason to believe they will when public engagement and outrage isn’t as strong as it is currently. If they continue to obstruct real change, then that leaves no reasonable choice but to abandon them and join an independent movement that isn’t beholden to them or the moneyed interests that control them.


Posted in Politics | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Explanation of Latest Updates

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

So, as I mentioned earlier, Bullshit Philosophy is going to be the new version of my old blog, and I think I’m pretty much done tinkering around. I decided to make the change because I finally got fed up with Blogger, and I already like WordPress much better. It’s nice to have my archives and permalinks actually work, and to not have a major battle on my hands every time I want to update the template. I’ve been wanting to have an RSS feed, which I couldn’t do on Blogger due to my blog being hosted on my own site rather than Blogspot (That’s another thing, they provide barely any support if you do that. My own fault, granted, but still…). And there are comments threads now – previously I was wildly opposed to that because I didn’t want to spend time policing it, but I suspect readers might be more willing to leave feedback that way than through email, through which I’ve barely gotten any feedback.

The main problem is that I’m not going to be able to import my old posts. I was pissed at first, but I’ve realized that this is actually a blessing in disguise, as I’m not terribly proud of the kind of shit I wrote as a 18-year-old in 2001 when I started blogging, and this gives me the opportunity to start anew. I’m going to leave the old blog up, so feel free to sift through the archives, although I don’t recommend it. I’m afraid to look at it myself.

However, I did decide to repost some of the stuff from my old blog that I actually did like and don’t mind other people reading. They’re in the “Blast from the Past” category. It’s a good place to start if you’re new here and want to see the sort of stuff I write about.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Are You a Hardcore Atheist?

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 12/16/08]

[UPDATE: Hemant added a scale to the list, and my ranking apparently is: “11-20: You are, literally, a ‘New Atheist.’ But you now have something to strive for! Go for the full 50!”]

From Friendly Atheist:

How serious do you take your atheism?

Let’s find out.

Copy and paste the list below on your own site, boldfacing the things you’ve done. (Feel free to add your own elaboration and commentary to each item!)


If you’ve done more than 35 of those things, I’d say PZ Myers will soon be taking lessons from you.

Here’s the list, with my annotations in brackets:
1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.

2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.

3. Created an atheist blog. [Granted, not entirely, or even mostly, about atheism, but still…]

4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.

5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.

6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.

7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know. [I don’t know enough to say for sure on this one. I do own three. And that’s not counting the various other religious texts I have.]

8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.

9. Have come out as an atheist to your family. [If you count my in-laws, as Rebecca says I should. That includes her devout Christian mom. No one in my actual family knows, though. I’m not hiding it, but I don’t advertise it, and they’ve never asked about it.]

10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.

11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.

12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony. [No, I got stuck with a religious one thanks to a pushy mother-in-law. Don’t get me started on that.]

13. Donated money to an atheist organization.

14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins.

15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.

16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize. [No, but Rebecca has! Back in undergrad there were people on campus handing out Chick tracts, and she debated them. “That made my day. I think I needed someone to try to convert me to Christianity,” she said.]

17. Hid your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.

18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).

19. Attended a protest that involved religion.

20. Attended an atheist conference.

21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.

22. Started an atheist group in your area or school.

23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.

24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die. [Much to Rebecca’s chagrin…]

25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.

26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.

27. Lost a job because of your atheism.

28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count). [Actually, I don’t even think I know any other full-on atheists. A few agnostics, but that’s as close as it comes. Not even Rebecca’s an atheist, although she’s probably even more hostile to organized religion than I am.]

29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills. [Ok, so I totally did that just now so I could mark this off. But in my defense, I read about this a few weeks ago, thought it sounded cool, completely forgot about it, then read it here and thought, “Yeah, I should actually do that.]

30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. [Not specifically because of the “under God” thing, but more broadly because of my opposition to nationalism. But still…]

31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”

32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.

33. Have turned on Christian TV because you need something entertaining to watch. [Do Christian radio stations count?]

34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.

35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant. [Technically, I have “Bright” listed on my Facebook profile, but I don’t think that falls under “euphemistic variant” because it’s a more descriptive term than atheism.]

36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).

37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)

38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.

39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.

40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.

41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public. [I don’t really have any clothing, but I do have atheistic stuff on my car. Does that count? I don’t think it should; it’s not quite as direct and personal as clothing.]

42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them. [No, but my father-in-law has!]

43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.

44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).

45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.

46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.” [Ok, not yet, but I’m marking this one anyway because Expelled is on my Netflix instant queue and I plan on watching it sometime when I need a good laugh. So it’s really just a matter of time]

47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.

48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…

49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.

50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.

So I have 18 out of 50, or a bit over a third of the list. Is it bad that now I want to use this as a checklist and try to check off more?

Posted in Blast from the Past, Religion | 1 Comment »

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Post-election Blues

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 12/13/08]

So once again I find myself having to apologize for not posting. I’d hoped to say more about the election before the election, but this whole campaign season (and the aftermath) has gotten me so down that I’ve had trouble just getting myself to read about politics (as my small pile of unread or barely read issues of Newsweek and The Nation should tell you), let alone write about it.

As far as the presidential race went, there weren’t many positions lonelier than that of a Green Party supporter in the 2008 elections. Criticizing Obama doesn’t exactly make you the most popular person in the room among progressives. The most frequent vibe I got was, “Hey, can’t you be happy just this once? And even if you can’t, can you please not ruin it for me?” I finally ended up writing in Cynthia McKinney, and though I already knew how little energy there was in any sort of third-party or independent movement this time around, it was still a huge letdown that no such candidate, on either side of the aisle, even broke 1%.

More generally, pretty much every candidate I cared about lost massively. There were some bright spots, of course: I’m glad Elizabeth Dole’s campaign of blatant anti-atheist bigotry ended up losing, there’s still hope at this point for Al Franken, Prop 2 won in California (which mandates more humane standards for farm animals), and various anti-abortion referenda lost, among other things.

But then there’s Prop 8 (maybe not a massive loss but still a major buzzkill), and the reelection of Jim Douglas here in Vermont, and the Green congressional candidates I was following in Illinois. Particularly saddening was the Vermont House race. Having written about this race before, I had no doubt that many Vermonters would turn down a solid progressive over a guy with a D next to his name, but goddamn, it’s pretty depressing that Peter Welch got 83% of the vote, and that Tom Hermann barely got more votes than a fucking anti-Semitic pothead (by which I mean Cris Ericson, one of the independents)!

What’s still got me down is the whole Cult of Obama Worship, which has been making me fucking sick for some time. Some progressives are unwilling to make even the slightest criticism of Obama as he drifts ever further to the right, instead choosing to rationalize everything he does, ignoring or minimizing the importance of the many conservative statements or appointments Obama has made while trumpeting the few token progressive ones as loud as they can. Before the election, people like me were constantly chided to just wait until after the election to attack Obama because we couldn’t afford to weaken him; now they’re saying to wait longer still. “He’s not even in office yet, give the guy a chance!” Is it ever going to be the right time?

Others are shocked and appalled at Obama’s rightward drift, apparently not having heard anything he said during the campaign. As Glenn Greenwald and others have noted, there were plenty of signs from the beginning that this is exactly where Obama intended to go as President; he’s just being more blatant now. Progressives didn’t demand a thing of Obama during the campaign, and now some of them are surprised that he clearly doesn’t feel he owes anything to them. I just don’t get it.

That said, I do of course admit that there are positives about Obama’s victory. It should be obvious, and yet I keep having to explain it to progressive Democrats: yes, Obama will almost certainly be a better president than McCain. It’s great that we’re going to have our first black president, and that Americans turned down a blatant campaign of fearmongering and race-baiting. That doesn’t mean I have to like the guy. So far on both economic and foreign policy it’s looking like Obama’s administration is going to be a rerun of the Clinton years, which I think are a huge mistake to look back on as the “good ol’ days.”

I really do hope I’m proven wrong, that he really is a progressive deep down, that all those conservative and/or neoliberal appointments are just there to provide establishment credibility for progressive policies as some have suggested. But basing your support for him on that hope is no different than blind faith. [On the subject of Obama’s appointments, personnel may not absolutely determine policy, but do you really think he’s going to surround himself with neoliberal economists like Larry Summers and foreign policy hawks like Gates and Clinton… and then just completely blow off all their advice?]

So, because of this case of post-election blues, I just haven’t felt like doing much of anything political, including on this blog. I’m getting sick of feeling like the grumpy old man at the party. I’m growing more and more cynical, less convinced that real, systemic change is possible. And less convinced of my ability to have an effect on anything. A question keeps nagging at me: why bother? I really don’t have a satisfactory answer yet.

Posted in Blast from the Past, Politics | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »


Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 10/9/08]

It saddens me to see people I highly respect spouting nonsense. That’s unfortunately the case with Howard Zinn and Greta Christina, who’ve both embraced the memes (“Wait until after the election to pressure the Dems” and “This is the most important election ever”) I discussed in my post Why the hell are progressives enthusiastic about Obama?

Here’s Zinn:

So, yes, I will vote for Obama, because the corrupt political system offers me no choice, but only for the moment I pull down the lever in the voting booth.

Before and after that moment I want to use whatever energy I have to push him toward a recognition that he must defy the traditional thinkers and corporate interests surrounding him, and pay homage to the millions of Americans who want real change.

And here’s Greta (who I’ll address more fully in a separate post):
If you disagree with Obama about one or more issues, then — once he’s elected — by all means, make your voice heard. Scream and shout. Hold his feet to the fire. As a citizen, that’s more than just your right — that’s your job. And if you think we should have a strong third party, then by all means, work to build it from a local level up.

But this election is way too important to screw around with.

Please don’t fail to act because you can’t act perfectly.

I think I addressed these arguments pretty fully in my previous post, but I do have one thing to add to the part about how we should wait until after the election to put pressure on the Democrats.

My problem with this argument, and the reason why I think it’s the same as doing nothing, is that the only leverage we really have over politicians is at election time. It doesn’t take a political science degree to know that getting elected is their foremost concern, and justifiably so. But if you signal that you’ll vote for them pretty much no matter what they do, that tells them that they can safely blow you off. They know that they only have to be a tiny bit better than the other guy to get your support.

And there’s no need to speculate about that, by the way, because the Democratic party comes right out and says it. As Stanford professor (and Obama supporter) Lawrence Lessig remarked a few months back about Obama’s support for the FISA bill:

When you talk to people close to the campaign about this, they say stuff like: “Come on, who really cares about that issue? Does anyone think the left is going to vote for McCain rather than Obama? This was a hard question. We tried to get it right. And anyway, the FISA compromise in the bill was a good one.”

It’s instructive to compare this with how the Republicans treat their base. Look at how McCain’s rhetoric constantly vacillates between moderate and hard-right conservative. He’s engaged in a delicate balancing act where he tries to keep the far-right base happy without making the rest of the country think he’s crazy. Why does he feel the need to do that, whereas Democrats seem completely comfortable taking the left for granted? Because McCain know he has to keep the base happy, or they might stay home on election day. Or even if they do hold their noses and vote for him, they won’t be very enthusiastic about it, won’t donate time or money, won’t convert their friends/family/coworkers, etc. Many conservatives, for some odd reason, see McCain as a closet moderate, and if he does anything to reinforce that notion then they might not turn out for him. Why do you think he took on Palin as his running mate? There were multiple reasons, but one of them was certainly to reassure the religious right, a group that was until then pretty tepid toward McCain.

I’m not saying don’t go out and protest for single-payer health care, or an end to the war, or anything else. I’m just asking, even if progressives do actually try to push Obama in a more progressive direction after the election (which I still highly doubt), what good will it do? He already knows he can pretty much ignore you, because you’ll have given up any leverage you had over him, any means of punishing him for doing the wrong thing. In fact, it’s entirely within reason that Obama would just use progressives a a rhetorical punching bag to show how “serious” and “independent-minded” he is, as he has already done on issues like telecom immunity.

So, my response to people like Greta who say that “This is not the time to be taking a principled stand” is that this is precisely the time to do it, in fact the only time it matters. Withholding our votes is really the only way to show the Democratic Party that there will be negative consequences for ignoring us. I’m not saying we should hold out for perfect candidates (in fact I think the suggestion that Greens and others do insist on perfection from candidates is a straw man), but that’s no reason to set the bar as low as we all to often do. It’s far from a perfect solution, but I have yet to see anything else proposed that doesn’t perpetuate the status quo indefinitely due to more or less relying on Democratic politicians to doing the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts, which will probably never happen.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Why the Hell Are Progressives Enthusiastic About Obama?

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 10/4/08]

As an addendum to my earlier post, I stumbled on some perfect examples of the party-before-principles, Democrat-before-progressive mentality that I discussed. From the letters to the editor in a recent issue of The Nation. They are in reference to the open letter to Obama published in a past issue, which called on him to “stand firm on the principles he so compellingly articulated in the primary campaign.”

Bellingham, Wash.

…I ask that all of us unite to fully support Obama and the other Democrats running in this election. It is not a good time to harass Obama and other Democrats, who face a difficult and important election. We may not agree with them on all issues, and we must continue our efforts in support of those issues. But we should not attempt to force our candidates to run their campaigns on our pet issues.


Bedford, Mass.

I think you are pushing much too hard on this rare and wonderful candidate. He, and all of us, find ourselves in a truly dirty fight. The senator needs all the support we can give him. He has quite enough to handle.


Rochester, N.Y.

I read your Open Letter. Well done. But remember, if we want change and to leave the Republican disaster behind, we must allow Obama to be more moderate. I hope the left has the courage, decency, intelligence and political savvy to grant Obama some flexibility until after the election. Let’s not ruin the show by being too ideological.


I have to say, I just don’t understand how people like these think. It’s almost like they’re saying, sure, Obama supports a $700 billion giveaway to Wall Street, warrantless wiretapping, telecom immunity, ethnic cleansing in Palestine, an indefinite American presence in Iraq, an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and faith-based initiatives; opposes single-payer health care; never says a word about American imperialism and largely embraces the Bush Doctrine and conservative framing of foreign policy; refuses to take nuclear war “off the table” in regard to Iran; almost without exception supports “free” trade agreements; has the penultimate drug warrior as his running mate; opposes impeaching or prosecuting one of the most criminal administrations in American history; is up to his eyeballs in corporate cash; and surrounds himself with economic advisers from the corporate wing of the party (many of whom helped design and push the policies that are now making such a mess of Wall Street). But we should still support him. Why? Because the Republicans are evil!

[Quick aside: A friend of my wife’s once asked her what the difference is between the Democrats and Republicans, to which Rebecca explained that the difference is that “the Republicans are evil.” I’m not saying that to criticize her, I just thought it was funny (and adorable *snicker*)].

One of the most common slurs against Green Party supporters is that we think there’s no difference between the two establishment parties. To my knowledge, no Green of any prominence has ever actually said that, and I certainly don’t believe it. What we do say is that there isn’t nearly enough difference on many important issues (especially, I would argue, on foreign policy issues).

Yes, I’ll admit it, the Republicans are evil whereas the Democrats are just douchbags. And yes, I would totally prefer an Obama administration to a McCain one. But I fail to see why I should be at all enthusiastic about Obama or the Democratic Party. I don’t get what’s so “rare and wonderful” about him, as one of the letters asserts. He seems like just another fucking politician to me. And that’s what I don’t get about progressives, the fact that so many of them are so enthusiastic about Obama despite the fact that on many issues he’s opposed to them right down the line. Can their standards get much lower?

Also in the letters is the reprise of the “just wait until after the election, this isn’t the right time to challenge” meme, along with the closely related one, “this is the most important election ever, we’re all fucked if the Republicans win now.”

In response to the first, my question is, when the hell is the right time? As I’ve mentioned before, I have no doubt that even if Obama wins, people like these will say that we can’t challenge him because we’ll undermine his presidency and make it more likely that the Republicans win next time. Just look at how they refused to criticize the Democratic Congress for, among other things, continuing to back the war after 2006. The burden of party unity always seems to be on the progressive wing, never on the leadership and/or corporate wing.

And in response to the second meme, I’m admittedly young but I haven’t seen an election yet that hasn’t been called the most important ever. This is a perfect manifestation of a big problem with the progressive movement: we’re too focused on short-term electoral politics and not enough on long-term movement building. In addition, I also haven’t seen an election where it hasn’t been said that if the Republicans win then America is going to be a fascist theocracy. Granted, the Bush regime has come pretty close to that. But if we’d had a real opposition party then the country never would have drifted quite as far in that direction, so I fail to see how the Greens and other groups are to blame for the Dems failing to even slow Bush down. It’s not like they couldn’t; they just chose not to. And let’s not forget how that same party’s last president set the stage for much of what Bush did. I won’t go into detail, but with the Wall Street bailout having passed yesterday it’s important to note that Clinton gleefully pressed for much of the deregulation that led to the current financial crisis.

Posted in Blast from the Past, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Which Side Are You On?

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 9/18/08]

[Note: For this post I will be using the term progressive in two senses. When used with upper-case, “Progressive” denotes supporters or candidates of the Vermont Progressive Party. When used in lower case, “progressive” denotes followers of the political philosophy of progressivism, which may or may not include supporters of any one party. Sorry for any confusion this may cause.]

So, the Congressional election here in Vermont is interesting to me. The candidates for the sole house seat are Peter Welch, the freshman Democratic incumbent, and Thomas Hermann of the Progressive Party. You’ll notice I didn’t mention a Republican. That’s because there isn’t one running. What this means is that progressives can vote for a third-party candidate without fear of the “spoiler effect” (which I think is a bullshit concept anyway, but that’s a subject for another time).

This election provides a great way for us to see what the progressive movement really believes. Admittedly, Welch isn’t evil; he’s basically progressive. But it really pisses me off that he votes for funding of the Iraq occupation (even while claiming not to) and refuses to support impeachment hearings (which says a lot about his views on the rule of law), and generally carries water for Nancy Pelosi. Hermann is clearly the more progressive of the two, so if you define yourself as a progressive, what reason is there not to support him other than party loyalty?

The thing for progressive to decide is, are we Democrats first and progressives second, or progressives first and Democrats second? I define myself as the latter. My primary concern is with enacting progressive policies, and if that can be best accomplished by getting Democrats in office, then that’s what I’ll work for. That’s why I’ve supported and worked for Democratic campaigns in the past. That’s why I was hopeful when the Dems won the 2006 midterms. But as those same elections showed, there’s a lot more to getting progressive policies than just putting Democrats in office. I’m not inflexible in my positions, but there are some lines I think shouldn’t be crossed, and we should always be pressuring the Dems to do better. If we want change, we need a political movement independent of the Democratic Party. We also need to show them that our votes aren’t a given, which is why I support the Greens and the Progressives.

Many progressives, however, frequently choose party over philosophy. My father-in-law, for instance, is pretty progressive, but probably the only thing Barack Obama could do that would lose his vote is to change party affiliation. It’s pretty sickening watching him jump through logical hoops trying to justify Obama’s bullshit. I have no doubt that if he were here, he’d pick Welch over Hermann, even when one is clearly more progressive and there are no potential negative consequences. And I fear that’s true of a lot of progressives.

Many progressives aren’t even willing to apply serious pressure to Democratic officials or candidates, let alone vote against them. For example, Glenn Greenwald noted a few months back that he got a lot of comments from readers demanding he stop criticizing Obama over his support for the FISA bill, not because they agreed with Obama’s position but because they were afraid it would weaken him. On this and other issues, many progressive Dems say, just hold off until after the election; then it’s war. Personally, I think they’re full of shit. They didn’t do anything after 2006 when the Democratic Congress blew their mandate on the war, free trade, and other issues; they’re certainly not going to move against a Democratic president. He’ll have midterms and re-election to think about, after all.

Too much of the progressive movement is afflicted with what David Sirota called Partisan War Syndrome, the willingness of “the supposedly ‘ideological’ grassroots left to increasingly subvert its overarching ideology on issues in favor of pure partisan concerns.” All that many progressives care about is short-term electoral victory, even if it reinforces the status quo and makes long-term progressive change harder. They put party ahead of ideology, vote for Democrats no matter what they do, and then wonder why the party doesn’t listen to them.

Posted in Blast from the Past, Politics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BLAST FROM THE PAST: “Militant Atheism”: An Atheist Critique of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 8/26/08]

Via Greta Christina comes the above amusing video from Al Sweigart. I agree with Greta that the newsreel parody at the beginning was a nice touch. The piece makes an argument similar to what I was aiming for in my essay on atheist fundamentalism, which is to say that both labels are meaningless ad hominems leveled at atheists whenever we say much of anything that distinguishes us from doormats.

But there’s one thing on which I disagree pretty strongly with Al. From the video: “So I’m a bit confused about the term ‘militant atheist’. This is a term that’s been bandied about recently, especially since Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and other authors have published very popular books on atheism. It’s kind of weird because ‘militant’ has a very clear definition of violence and war and physical force, and this is all completely absent in the recent rise of atheism in our culture.”

Going from his definition of militancy, there clearly is a militant wing of the atheist movement, and two of the authors he mentions, Harris and Hitchens, certainly fall into that category, at least in regard to Islam. It deeply disturbs me that guys like them (and for that matter girls like Ayaan Hirsi Ali) are more or less the public face of atheism in this country. I suppose I can understand – I do agree with both of them on a lot of things, I don’t expect to see eye-to-eye on everything with anyone, and it’s not like we have a lot of other people to take the job. But still, there are certain things that it’s hard for me to look past.

Why do I call them militant? Hitchens in particular was a prominent supporter of a brutal war of aggression against a Muslim country that never attacked or threatened us, a war which by some estimates has cost over a million lives. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of militancy. Harris denies that he has ever “written or spoken in support of the war in Iraq”, but from what I’ve seen his criticisms have mainly been with the handling of the war, not with the basic premise – an argument that Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias brilliantly termed the incompetence dodge. And he’s certainly never expressed much sympathy for the resulting “collateral damage” in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I’m more familiar with Harris’ work than with Hitchens’, so it’s him that I’m going to focus on. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him racist, but he’s definitely a major proponent of the dehumanization and stereotyping of Muslims. He’s a supporter of Samuel Huntington’s crazy “clash of civilizations” theory, one part of which posits a battle to the death between the West and Islam. He supports racial profiling. He supports torture of Muslim detainees. He thinks we should mount a nuclear first strike against Islamist regimes that develop long-range nukes, potentially killing millions of innocent people. (Something tells me he wouldn’t be too opposed to war with Iran.)

In general, Harris seems to view Muslims as one big scary homogeneous “Other” that can’t be reasoned with and wants nothing more than to kill us all; all of them potential terrorists until proven otherwise. I agree with his critique of (some) multiculturalists whose overweening respect for religion leads them to avoid criticizing, for instance, the treatment of women in Muslim countries. What I don’t agree with is his apparent idea that other cultures are failed attempts at being us, and his pretty explicit belief that Western ideas should be imposed at gunpoint. As he himself admits, he has more in common with Christian conservatives than secular progressives on the subject of Islam.

I was especially struck by Harris’ jaw-dropping naivety on foreign policy issues. He sees none of the complex reasons for the popularity of Islamic militant groups like Hamas or Hezbollah – they’re all just crazed with religion as far as he’s concerned, and he regards any other attempt to explain it as tantamount to justifying it. He bends over backwards to exonerate U.S. foreign policy for the creation and sustaining of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Harris’ position is pretty much, Why can’t those crazy Muslims see all the good things we’re trying to do for them? In one spectacularly stupid comment in The End of Faith, he criticized leftists intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy for failing to see the good intentions of the U.S. government. In my opinion, even a cursory understanding of the history of American foreign policy should put to rest any notion that our leaders give a damn about the poor oppressed masses of the world.

So, to sum up: Phrases like “militant atheism” are completely abused by Christians and other defenders of religion to slander any nonbeliever who speaks out as opposed to staying quiet. But there is such a thing as militant atheism, and it’s becoming increasingly prominent in atheist thought. The non-militants need to become more aggressive in challenging it. We need to make sure people know that Harris and Hitchens don’t speak for us on everything.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Race, Obama, and My Family: Part 2

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 9/5/08]

So, I mentioned in my last post on this subject that “I’ve started firing back at my relatives with forwards of my own in an attempt to push them towards Obama and/or away from John McCain,” and that “It’s anyone’s guess as to whether I’m having an effect…” Well, I’m pretty sure it’s having little or no effect. At times it feels a bit like Whack-a-Mole; every time I knock down one objection, they just pop up with another.

For instance, when I was visiting my dad and grandparents in Peoria a month ago, they were cheesed off about Obama supposedly snubbing wounded troops in Germany. A few days later, I got an email forward from my dad about Obama blowing off troops in Afghanistan. As you can see through the links (which I sent to them in response), both stories are totally false. I doubt it made a difference to them. I don’t even know if they read any of the stuff I send. If they do, they definitely don’t take it seriously.

I still get stuff from them about Obama being a Muslim. And I know I’m not alone. From Marty Kaplan at the Huffington Post:

…depending on which poll you read, somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of American voters thought that Obama is a Muslim. A Newsweek poll found that 26 percent thought he was raised as a Muslim (untrue), and 39 percent thought he grew up going to an Islamic school in Indonesia (also untrue).

I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember hearing that the number of people who think Obama’s a Muslim has actually gone up in recent months. And nothing seems able to get through to them.

The question I’ve been asking myself is why I’m having such a hard time dissuading my family of this and other absurdities. I suspect that there are two primary reasons, the first being that, due to my own ambivalence on Obama, most of the articles I’ve sent have been less pro-Obama than anti-McCain. Even though I’m not from the South, Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey provides a good example of my family’s thinking in his article on how the election is playing out in that region:

“…a 12-year-old… told me what he’d heard tell in school about the elections. Next to nothing about McCain. But Obama? ‘There are too many chances we would take if he became president, you know what I mean?’ I said I wasn’t sure I did. ‘I don’t know if it’s a myth or it’s true,’ said the boy, ‘but they say that they caught him trying to sneak Iraqi soldiers into the United States.'”

I could probably tell my family scary stuff about McCain until I’m blue in the face and it wouldn’t do any good, because it’s not really about him. They don’t necessarily like McCain all that much; they probably don’t even know where he stands on most issues. But in response to my arguments, I know what I’d hear if I talked to them about it in person: “Yeah… but we can’t afford to take a chance on Obama.”

In their defense, though, this attitude isn’t totally about race. My dad said pretty much the same thing in 2004 about John Kerry. “At least I know what to expect from Bush,” he said. I’ve noticed that politically many people, particularly old folks, are scared to death of change and therefore tend to go with the devil they know rather than the one they don’t. And I’m sure that goes double when the candidate in question is a black guy with a foreign name.

As to the second reason why I seem to be fighting a losing battle, I can’t help but wonder whether the messenger might have something to do with it. Especially with my dad, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fact that I’m the one making these arguments might be undermining my case. “That silly naive kid, what the hell does he know? He only has a degree in political science, what makes him more credible than an unsourced chain email?” He’s never actually said that to me before, but I do regularly get some version of the “you’ll understand when you’re older” defense when he doesn’t have a rational response to something I said.

Let’s just say that it’s pretty frustrating arguing with them. I spend a fair amount of time and effort trying to put together rational arguments, and I get bullshit in return. It’s not that I think they’re stupid, or that I’m right at all times; the problem is that they’re definitely not intellectuals, nor are they very well informed. To paraphrase Bill Maher, 99% of their politics is how they feel about something from the get-go, from the gut, and if something I say conflicts with that, it tends to get disregarded.

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BLAST FROM THE PAST: Race, Obama, and My Family

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 7/9/08]

The following is a conversation I had with Rebecca not long ago, recounting a brief exchange with my grandfather earlier that day:

Me: Was it just me, or did Grandpa actually say something positive about Barack Obama?
Rebecca: No, I think he just said that Obama will probably win.
Me: Yeah, you might be right. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wants Obama to win.
Rebecca: At least Grandpa didn’t call him th n-word.
Me [surprised] Yeah, that’s a definite improvement!

Grandpa’s never been particularly fond of black people – I grew up regularly hearing him drop the n-bomb – so it surprised me to hear anything other than utter contempt for Obama. [This is the guy who was upset in 2004 that he had to vote for a black guy for US Senate no matter which party he went with – it was Obama vs. Alan Keyes at the time. I admit to having been pretty amused.] I don’t challenge him on racism, because I know it wouldn’t get me anywhere. He’s in his 80’s now, he grew up in a different time, he’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

The rest of my family definitely isn’t fond of Obama either, but of course they’ll swear up and down that it has nothing to do with racism. And of course they’re full of shit. They may not be as open about it as Grandpa – only a very small number of white Americans actually admit to conscious feelings of racial superiority – and in fact my dad and others sometimes make fun of Grandpa’s blatant racism. But they really just do a better job of rationalizing it.

“Most anti-semites and racists don’t think they are anti-semites and racists. Sometimes it comes out in anger, when they aren’t thinking clearly and they kind of clap their hands over their mouths… and whisper, “did I say that?” Others think they are making reasonable observations and that those who object are being peculiarly sensitive. They search for justifications and usually claim victim status themselves at the hands of the PC police.” Digby

My family tends toward the latter group, and going back to Obama, it’s instructive to watch how they search for any justification, no matter how crazy, to avoid supporting a black presidential candidate. A few weeks back my dad summed up pretty succinctly why he’s anti-Obama: “He’s a Muslim, he’s unpatriotic, and he only cares about blacks and Muslims.”

Yes, they bought the whole madrassa smear, and no amount of evidence seems to be able to dissuade them. Apparently CNN’s definitive debunking of the smear is less reliable than a chain email. I regularly get those crazy right-wing forwards from my dad and grandma, so in between emails about how all Hispanics are potential drug dealers I get to hear about how, gasp, Obama didn’t have his hand over his heart during the anthem! This is where the “unpatriotic” part comes from. This was a BIG issue with my family. Who cares about health care or war, Obama’s not blindly nationalistic enough for their tastes. The stupid award in this category goes to my cousin Penny for declaring that this shows how Obama “won’t do anything for his country.”

Why do they freak out so much over stuff like this? One possible answer is that patriotism and religion are being used as proxies for race in the presidential election:

“Sen. Barack Obama… is the only candidate for president who feels compelled to tell crowds he took the oath of office on the Bible, not the Koran. That he’s not a radical Muslim intent on taking over the United States from within. That he does, indeed, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with his hand over his heart…

While not overtly racial, the chain e-mails seek to exploit Obama’s skin color, his name and his lineage. They challenge Obama’s efforts to portray himself as a composite of America, rather than an outlier.

Michael Dawson, an expert in race and politics at the University of Chicago, said the falsehoods are likely to raise doubts among people who, because of Obama’s race, aren’t quite comfortable with him anyway.

Concerns about Obama’s religion and patriotism are largely a defense mechanism, because driving those concerns are the same thing that drives racism: fear of anything that doesn’t look and act like oneself.

This list of purported quotes from Obama’s books, which I received from relatives, provides another good example of their defense mechanisms. As the Snopes article just linked to shows, “these cherry-picked statements are all presented devoid of context, and some of them are reworded from the original (or apparently non-existent).” But the point of this email is pretty clearly so they can claim, “See? He’s the racist, not me! Therefore I’m not racist for opposing him!” I’m pretty sure this is where my dad got his idea that Obama “only cares about blacks and Muslims.”

All of this has put me in an odd position. Lately I’ve started firing back at my relatives with forwards of my own in an attempt to push them towards Obama and/or away from John McCain, which might seem contradictory since readers of this blog known I’m not all that fond of Obama myself. It certainly FEELS weird.

The problem for me is that, in my view, they’re opposed to Obama for all the wrong reasons. I’d like it if they supported Cynthia McKinney, but I know that if they don’t like Obama then they REALLY won’t like her. It’s all about baby steps. As much as Obama disgusts me these days, I’d rather see them support him than McCain. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether I’m having an effect, but it’s better than doing nothing.

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