Notes and Comment Blog

Manufactured ignorance

Mar 12th, 2014 12:02 pm | By

This is a subject that has always interested me – agnotology, the study of the cultural production of ignorance.

It’s a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”

Bullshitting for profit and to protect the profits – and bullshitting about life and death, at that. Such a fabulous thing to do. “So a lot of people get lung cancer because we succeed in fooling them! So what? It’s more money for us!”

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

Well, everybody needs a hobby.

Big Tobacco’s public relations campaign against the anti-smoking movement, for example, was aimed at “manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it,” reported Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, “Merchants of Doubt.”

I am reading that book right now. It is terrific.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The social in social justice

Mar 12th, 2014 10:39 am | By

We hear a lot – a LOT – about how “social justice” aka atheismplus aka feminism & anti-racism & LGBT rights & trans rights & animal rights and fill out the list as you like, is a distraction, is divisive, is “drama,” is attention-whoring, is whatever label you want to use by way of saying it has nothing to do with atheism or skepticism or secularism or free inquiry.

There are ways that’s true, if you look at both parts of the equation very narrowly and literally. It is of course perfectly possible to be both an atheist and an aggressively misogynist shithead. If we didn’t know that a priori we would certainly still know it empirically, because we’ve encountered so many glowing examples. (I mean “glowing” in a radioactive sense.)

But very narrowly and literally isn’t the only way to look at the issue. That which is literally true isn’t necessarily good for strategy or longevity or popularity. Atheists can be shits, sure, obviously, but if you want an atheist movement that makes atheism more acceptable and even respectable (by which I mean worthy of genuine respect; I don’t mean prim and conformist), then having a movement full of shits isn’t helpful. Also, if the movement is one where people get together, in local chapters and the like, then, again, having a lot of shits around isn’t conducive to expanding the movement. Shits repel everyone else.

Now, if there are more shits than there are non-shits, maybe being inclusive toward the shits is the best way to go, at least in terms of bums on seats. But I’m sentimentally optimistic enough to think that shits don’t outnumber non-shits. In any case there’s also the quality issue. Is it better to have a bigger movement full of shits? Or a smaller movement not full of shits? For pure vote-counting, obviously the first is better, but for pretty much everything else, the second is.

Also, there’s principle. A lot of us actually do act on principle on these things.

All of that indicates why social justice is actually not irrelevant to atheism or skepticism considered as movements as opposed to purely individual desk activities.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The laws limiting the age of marriage are unIslamic

Mar 12th, 2014 10:03 am | By

Dawn reports that a meeting of The Council of Islamic Ideology in Islamabad on Tuesday ruled that the laws related to minimum age of marriage were un-Islamic and that children of any age could get married if they attain puberty.

At the conclusion of two day meeting, Chairman CII Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani noted that the laws related to marriage too were unfair and there cannot be any age of marriage.

However, he explained that there were two segments of marriage – nikah and ruksati, while nikah could be performed at any age.

“Even the minors can have nikah but that has to be executed by the guardians,” chairman CII said adding, “But ruksti could be executed only after attaining the age of puberty.”

He said that the age of puberty varies from individuals to individuals and it was the responsibility of guardians to have ruksati soon the child attains the age of puberty.

“The laws limiting the age for both the segments of marriage are unIslamic and needed to be rectified,” he added.

If I understand that correctly he’s saying that marriage is mandatory for everyone. I take that to be the meaning of “it was the responsibility of guardians to have ruksati [as] soon [as] the child attains the age of puberty.”

A world with no freedom for anyone. You’re either a child, subject to guardians, or an adult, married off. Independence and autonomy don’t exist.

The officials were asked if the international conventions signed by Pakistan related to child marriage would be violated after this ruling by CII.

Responding to the query the official said that the international conventions cannot be in contradiction to the constitution of the country or Islam and if they were, those particular clauses would not apply on Pakistan.

Right. None of your pesky international human rights treaties; get out of here with that shit.

The CII had on earlier day suggested the government to change Muslim marriage laws as it required Muslim male to seek permission from the previous wife or wives for another marriage.

Oh hell yes. You can’t have a Muslim male asking any wife or wives for permission for anything. That would be totally UnIslamic.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A chance to air their nostalgia

Mar 12th, 2014 9:37 am | By

Emily Bazelon at Slate takes a look at some of the more…eccentric far-right arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood briefs against the Obamacare rule that employers must provide contraception coverage as part of their health care plans.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the companies whose suits the Supreme Court will hear later this month, have been careful to frame their objections narrowly. They’re not refusing to pay for all birth control. They just don’t want to fund “items” like the morning-after pill and the IUD, which they say effectively cause abortion by preventing a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterus. Many scientists say that’s not true. But the companies are trying to take a limited, reasonable-minds-may-differ position.

Naturally; they have a better shot that way. This is precisely why so many people are so annoyed with Dave Silverman for saying there is a secular argument against abortion rights while there is no secular argument against LGBT rights or same-sex marriage. I don’t think he meant to imply that there is a reasonable or good secular argument against abortion rights, but many people have argued that that’s beside the point, because the effect of making an exception of abortion rights is the same as if he had just plain said there is a good, reasonable argument against abortion rights. Now that Hemant Mehta has seen fit to publish a secular argument against abortion rights on his blog, without dissent or other comment, I think they’re probably right. People have pointedly wondered if he would publish a guest post giving a secular argument for racism or against LGBT rights, and asked why women’s rights are so much more up for grabs than other kinds of rights are.

Back to Hobby Lobby.

The government has medical heavyweights on its side, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But Hobby Lobby has more briefs—the majority of a total of more than 80 briefs, by my count, were filed by conservative groups—and their allies have written the sentences that jump off the page. Despite how the companies themselves have carefully crafted their case, the briefs from their supporters provide a refresher course in how fundamentalists get from here to there. They are full of revelations.

Bazelon summarizes the secular and medical reasons contraception is good for women; why the ability to plan whether and when to get pregnant makes women better off. Then for the other way of looking at it.

But the American Freedom Law Center, which says it “defends America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values,” sees contraception, instead, as Pope Paul VI did in 1968In its brief, AFLC quotes the former pope like so:

It has come to pass that the widespread use of contraceptives has indeed harmed women physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually — and has, in many respects, reduced her to the “mere instrument for the satisfaction of [man’s] own desires.” Consequently, the promotion of contraceptive services — the very goal of the challenged mandate — harms not only women, but it harms society in general by “open[ing] wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”

Because sex. If there is contraception, then sex becomes just sex – just pleasure, just fun, just sensation – and that can’t be right, because sex is filthy. Unless the end result of it is a darling little baby whether you want one or not.

The Beverly LaHaye Institute, the research arm of Concerned Women for America, drives home this point, arguing that the government should have considered:

the documented negative effects the widespread availability of contraceptives has on women’s ability to enter into and maintain desired marital relationships. This in turn leads to decreased emotional wellbeing and economic stability (out-of-wedlock childbearing being a chief predictor of female poverty), as well as deleterious physical health consequences arising from, inter alia, sexually transmitted infections and domestic violence.

Because sex sex sex, dammit! If sex isn’t punished with pregnancy, then it becomes Too Much Fun and everything goes to hell!

If it sounds like I’m describing a 1960s enraged sermon about the pill, I guess that’s the point: I could be. The Hobby Lobby case has given the groups that want to go back to prepill days a chance to air their nostalgia. And they want the Supreme Court to know that all women don’t share the view that controlling one’s body, with regard to the deep, life-altering question of when to be pregnant, is helpful and freeing.

And they want all of us to live according to that benighted view.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A woman’s request for abortion cannot be treated as a lottery

Mar 11th, 2014 2:36 pm | By

In better news, however – on March 7 the Council of Europe’s Committee of Social Rights ruled that conscientious objection cannot stand in the way of women receiving the reproductive healthcare services guaranteed by Italian law.

The milestone decision on conscientious objection and abortion delivered by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Social Rights is welcomed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN). IPPF EN lodged a collective complaint[1] against Italy which stated that the weak regulation of health personnel’s conscientious objection violates the right to health protection. IPPF EN is pleased to announce that the claim has been successful – and in time for Saturday 8th March, which is International Women’s Day.

The Committee’s decision supports the position held by IPPF EN, LAIGA and the Italian lawyers Marilisa D’ Amico and Benedetta Liberali. They clearly state that conscientious objection cannot stand in the way of women receiving the reproductive healthcare services guaranteed by Italian law. The Italian State is obliged to make sure women get access to abortion services – as and when required. “A woman’s request to abortion cannot be treated as a lottery, dependant on the luck of the patient, her wealth or where she lives,” saysVicky Claeys, the Regional Director of IPPF EN.

The Committee confirms that women face numerous challenges regarding abortion services in Italy. For example, waiting times are excessive and sometimes conscientiously objecting health personnel refuse to provide the necessary care before or after abortion. Furthermore, in some areas, there is an imbalance between the need for pregnancy termination and the number of non-objecting competent health personnel available. This means, even though the Italian law should guarantee access to reproductive health care for everyone, women cannot access abortion in all parts of Italy. There are huge difficulties, particularly in the south of Italy and Lombardy.

Therefore IPPF EN welcomes the Committee denouncing the ‘territorial and economic discrimination’ that women face when searching for available abortion services providers.

Now for Italy to do something about it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Abandoned by all medical staff

Mar 11th, 2014 2:30 pm | By

Why is it a problem when medical personnel are allowed to refuse to perform abortions because of their “sincere religious beliefs”? Well one reason – though only one – is cases like one that happened in Rome in October 2010.

Valentina Magnanti was forced to abort her dead foetus in a toilet in Rome’s Sandro Pertini hospital, abandoned by all medical staff and with only her husband to assist her. This is what can happen when medical staff are allowed to follow their “consciences” and refuse to participate in abortions.

She has a rare genetically transmitted disease, but she couldn’t get tested early in her pregnancy because of a horrible law passed by the Berlusconi government in 2004. She had to wait until the fifth month, only to find out that the fetus did indeed have the disease.

Her gynaecologist refused to help her. She finally found a gynaecologist at the Sandro Pertini hospital who would sign the necessary paperwork. After being admitted to the hospital, she was given drugs to induce the abortion and was told that she would feel no pain.

“Instead… It was hell. After fifteen hours of excruciating pain, between spasms of vomiting and moments when I passed out, with my husband always at my side, not knowing what to do, going to the doctors and nurses asking them to help me, to no avail, I gave birth in the hospital toilet. With only Fabrizio by my side.” No one came to help her. “Perhaps because during the period between being admitted to hospital and giving birth, the shifts had changed, and all the doctors on duty then were objectors.” While she was in agony, a group of anti-abortion activists came in, “carrying copies of the gospel and making threatening comments.”

That’s one reason.

Valentina was caught between two laws: one which denied her the right to assisted conception, leaving her with no option but an abortion, and another which allowed medical personnel the right to refuse to go to the aid of a suffering patient having an abortion. 70% of Italian medical personnel are “objectors”, and in the Lazio region – capital, Rome – that rises to 90%, making it very unlikely that Valentina’s experience is an isolated case.

Are 90% of Lazio’s doctors and nurses really fervent Catholics? Or for some is claiming the right to “freedom of conscience” simply the path of least resistance to a successful career? Exactly what kind of conscience allows doctors and nurses to leave a woman in agony on a bathroom floor as she loses the baby she has longed for for years?

Did you catch that? 90% of medical personnel in Rome refuse to participate in abortions.

If men got pregnant…

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Trying to provoke

Mar 11th, 2014 10:22 am | By

Sometimes I can hardly believe what I’m reading. Student Rights reports:

Last week both Yusuf Chambers of the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) and Uthman Lateef appeared at the University of Nottingham as part of ‘Discover Islam Week’.

Given that both these speakers have a record of expressing homophobic sentiment, student journalists both approached LGBT Network members and questioned the two men on their beliefs.

Calls for intolerant speakers to be allowed to speak in order for their bigotry to be exposed are common from students, so you would think that this would have been acceptable behaviour.

Instead a statement has been released by the LGBT Network and the Islamic Society at the university which targets those journalists for trying “to provoke an antagonistic atmosphere” on campus.


What is this, India? Is the University of Nottingham operating under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code?

Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.— Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Religions have tenets, beliefs, claims. Chambers and Lateef weren’t there to do a fashion show or a dance recital; they were there to share their ideas. People get to challenge those ideas. They get to do that without being accused of “trying to provoke an antagonistic atmosphere.”

In addition to this, the Islamic Society President states that “such attacks were problematic and contributed to a sense of marginalisation and discomfort towards many Muslim students on campus”.

That challenging someone with a history of homophobia over their bigoted views can be described as an ‘attack’ and as marginalising Muslim students is incredible, and demonstrates a deep intolerance of legitimate criticism.

Legitimate criticism is legitimate.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Fourteen percent

Mar 11th, 2014 9:21 am | By

It’s not just new laws and restrictions, it’s not just protesters outside clinics, it’s not just Catholic hospitals gobbling up secular hospitals – it’s also training, and how difficult it is to get it. The Daily Beast reports on the scarcity of medical training in abortion.

…abortion training is still largely isolated in freestanding clinics and the relatively few OB-GYN residency programs that provide comprehensive training. Although the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education—the governing body which sets nationwide rules for medical residencies—put abortion training on the curriculum for all OB-GYN programs in 1996, Congress took the unprecedented step of nullifying that decision soon afterward. To this day, any program that does not abide by the ACGME guidelines won’t lose its federal funding, and only 40 percent of OB-GYN programs in the country offer comprehensive abortion training.

“It’s this cuckoo level of micromanaging,” Carole Joffe, a sociologist and author of two books on the history of abortion rights, said of Congress’s decision. “In theory, it’s not illegal for them to do that, it’s just unprecedented.”

Congress micromanaging medical education to make sure abortion training is not required – wonderful, isn’t it? Nothing is too much when it’s a question of making sure women don’t have rights.

“We had one OB-GYN resident come work with us, and her hospital was affiliated with a Catholic hospital and she was getting no training in abortion whatsoever,” Debra Stulberg, a family practitioner and researcher at the University of Chicago, told The Daily Beast. “Often, having the elective time and being able to find an experience where you can get training is not the same.”

Even when motivated medical students and residents can find abortion training, they’re not always able to make use of those skills later on. Some private practices and hospitals have been known to make physicians sign contracts saying they won’t provide abortions—even at an outside clinic—while on staff.

“The real problem facing abortion provision—besides the stuff you know about Texas and admitting privileges—is at a much quieter level,” Joffe told the Beast.“It’s becoming hard for those who are trained to find places at which they can practice. From a hospital administration point of view, do you want picketers? Do you want hassles? No.”

They don’t need to overturn Roe v Wade. They can just make it too scary to provide abortions, and the result is the same.

Stulberg has observed the same thing. In 2011, she published a paper in which she found that, while 97 percent of OB-GYNs encountered patients seeking abortions, only 14 percent provided them.

“The tactic on the religious right to stigmatize abortion has translated beyond just making it hard for women to seek abortion,” she said. “Hospitals, medical schools, others who you would think might be neutral or even take a pro-reproductive-health stance, often are just afraid—afraid of protests, afraid of attention. They would rather just fly beneath the radar.”

Only 14% of OB-GYNs provide abortion.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Puppy break

Mar 10th, 2014 5:29 pm | By

No reason, just because.

H/t Roland

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Still a problem

Mar 10th, 2014 4:59 pm | By

Chris Stedman did a piece on this question of homophobia in atheism at Religion News Service after that Twitter exchange I quoted.

Discussions around sexism among atheists have been gaining momentum for years, but it’s clear that sexism is still a problem in certain segments of movement atheism. I’ve seen manifestations of it, and I am far from alone. And regarding anti-LGBTQ attitudes: I’ve heard from atheists who say that I’m too “effeminate,” that my being gay makes atheists seem “like freaks,” or that my “obvious homosexuality” makes me an ineffectual voice for atheists.

To paraphrase Clay Shirky for the thousandth time: if the voice of authority is always male, people will think the voice of authority is supposed to be male – and not just male but MALE; hyper-male, exaggerated-male, stereotypical-male. Poofters and bitches need not apply.

Much of organized atheism has a frat house or locker room or comedy club atmosphere. That doesn’t help.

The bottom line is this: Atheism is not an inoculation against prejudice. Being an atheist does not prevent you from being influenced by the homophobia and misogyny that permeate our culture. It may seem like an obvious point but it’s important to remember, lest we operate under the false idea that atheists are somehow immune.

No, it’s not, and in fact it can be an encouragement to certain kinds of prejudice. It’s sad but it’s true.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Bored@Baker rape guide

Mar 10th, 2014 4:39 pm | By

Inside Higher Ed reports on cyberbullying at university.

There are confession pages and websites, on Facebook and elsewhere. Universities have no way to block access to them.

Most posts are innocent confessions about crushes and pranks — or just hoaxes — but occasionally, students use the sites to launch anonymous attacks and start rumors. That’s what happened recently at Hopkins, where a confessions page on Facebook turned into “a hub for cyberbullying and controversial posts about race and sexual orientation,” according to the independent student newspaper The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

“It’s unfortunate that from time to time, at colleges across the country, these things pop up,” O’Shea wrote. “It’s unfortunate that a very few people are willing to hide behind the mask of anonymity to say things to which they would never attach their names and reputations.”

One correction: it’s not “a very few.” It’s a lot. A lot of people are willing to do that, including some respectable people, like doctors and government bureaucrats and the like.

More privately hosted sites have appeared in CollegeACB’s wake, including Bored@, which deems itself as an “anonymous social network for educational institutions.” At Dartmouth College, the site is known as Bored@Baker, a reference to the Baker-Berry Library. Membership is restricted to users with an email address ending in “” or “” — in other words, current and former students.

Dartmouth recently launched an investigation in response to a freshman who said she was sexually assaulted after having been named in a “rape guide” posted to the website. The case did not turn up a report of sexual assault in connection with the post, but the university was able to identify the author, who is now undergoing Dartmouth’s disciplinary process, Anderson said.

Just what every university needs, a rape guide.

In many cases, students enjoy First Amendment protection and can’t be held liable for their posts, but Tracy Mitrano, the former director of IT Policy at Cornell University, said some speech may be seen as an assault under criminal law.

“Colleges and universities would do well to borrow these legal concepts and formulate through campus discussion and debate reasonable definitions and standards to incorporate into campus codes of conduct,” Mitrano, who also blogs for Inside Higher Ed, said in an email, adding that “an individual member of the community may enjoy free speech but may also within the community find their speech implicates other provisions under the campus code.”

The “rape guide” was in other words a clear violation of Dartmouth’s campus code — not to mention Bored@Baker’s terms of service – which spurred the university into action.

“While we certainly have a healthy respect for the First Amendment, we also want to make it clear that as a community, we have standards and and expect that … we will treat one another with respect,” Anderson said.

Is a “rape guide” protected under the First Amendment anyway?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Herding cats, birds, lions, sharks, and rabbits

Mar 10th, 2014 1:04 pm | By

The back and forth over American Atheists and the Conservative Political Action Conference continues today. There are people calling it a “witch hunt”…which is odd, because from what I’ve seen it’s mostly feminists who are annoyed by what they think looks like an effort to use abortion rights as a bargaining chip to attract conservatives to AA. (I don’t think that’s what it was, myself, but I get why it looked like that.) Not for the first time I note how ironic it is to use “witch hunt” as a term of abuse for feminist disagreement with something. It’s not normally women who do the witch hunting, and it’s not mostly men who are the victims of witch hunts. Maybe another phrase would be better.

Be that as it may, earlier today Chris Stedman disputed Dave Silverman on a couple of points, and Dave said he would amend his argument. (So, you see? Not a witch hunt. A productive discussion and disagreement. No witches put to the fire.)

Chris Stedman @ChrisDStedman

@MrAtheistPants And you implied on Twitter that there aren’t anti-gay atheists? I’ve actually encountered/heard from many anti-gay atheists.

David Silverman @MrAtheistPants

@ChrisDStedman That’s disturbing. I’ve only heard such from ppl who claim to be atheists (I get that a lot) but I don’t believe them.

Have you actually met, personally, atheists who are anti LGBT equality? I have not.

Chris Stedman @ChrisDStedman

@MrAtheistPants I have, and I’ve also heard from a number of atheists who say my “obvious homosexuality” makes me a bad rep for atheists…

…because it makes us seem like “freaks” or seem “weak,” etc. These folks definitely exist.

David Silverman @MrAtheistPants

@ChrisDStedman Well, that sucks. Sorry you experienced that. Will research and tweak my argument.

So, good outcome; listening and adjusting.

I was struck by what Chris said, because it sounds so familiar in a way. So I added my two cents.

Ophelia Benson @OpheliaBenson

@ChrisDStedman @MrAtheistPants That’s gross. (Such ppl prob think the same abt women – weak & freakish, leave them out.)

There is a HUGE segment of movemt atheism that’s self-consciously macho. It’s driving a lot of us out.

It is. And you can’t have everything. You can talk about a big tent all you want, but in practice, it breaks down. You can have a big tent for some, limited purposes. You can recruit people to join you on a single issue. But for a movement, over the long term? It will break down. People will leave a movement that is too full of members who are belligerently hostile. A movement full of racists will lose people who dislike racism, and a movement full of people who dislike racism will lose racists. That’s how it is. People go where they want to go. Except when it’s life and death in the short term, you’ll have a very hard time persuading people to work with others who despise them. It’s all very well to make jokes about witch hunts and the People’s Front of Judea; you still can’t force people to work with those they consider hostile.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Going for the numbers

Mar 9th, 2014 5:42 pm | By

Many people have been annoyed-to-furious with American Atheists and Dave Silverman over the past few days over their courtship of members of the batshit-rightwing community. AA was going to have a table at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but then CPAC changed its mind and gave AA its money back. Dave went to the conference anyway, and talked to lots of people there.

Raw Story reported on some of those conversations on Friday.

[Silverman] seems an unlikely proselytizer for this suit-and-bow-tie crowd, tearing into his subject with the wired energy of an old-school punk rock fan. But he claims it’s working.

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

That’s one of the items that people are riled about (apart from the basic issue of going there at all). It’s a bit tangled. At first Dave is saying that conservatism needn’t be social conservatism, because that’s actually big government and theocracy, and conservatism ought to be opposed to that – so conservatism should have no problem with gay rights, right to die, abortion rights. Then the reporter, Roy Edroso, says but there are anti-abortion people here, and they would say they are conservatives. Then Dave says there is a secular argument against abortion, so opposing abortion isn’t necessarily theocratic. So that could be a genuine conservative position, because it’s not theocratic, while school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage are issues to do with church and state.

Well, there are a lot of conservatives who are conservatives because they want the lowest possible taxes on themselves and no unions or minimum wage or national health; such conservatives may be socially liberal, or indifferent. But guess what: that doesn’t mean they’re interested in pulling away from the social conservatives. You know why? Because votes, that’s why. They can’t win by themselves, so they put up with a lot of bullshit that they don’t personally like, in order to win, in order to have lower taxes.

So Dave coming along and dangling atheism in front of them is not very likely to make them go anywhere. And meanwhile it’s pissing off his supporters in the other direction, so it might not be such a hot idea.

Then he expands on his own political views.

But why is this his battle? Why not let conservatives be conservatives and just vote for the candidates he likes? “Because I want a choice,” said Silverman. “I don’t get a choice at the voting booth, ever.” He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

See I can’t make sense of that part at all. Those suspicions of Obama aren’t right-wing suspicions, they’re left-wing suspicions. The right wing is all for spying on us (does the name George Bush ring a bell?) and it thinks drones are the best fun ever. The Democrats aren’t too liberal for Dave, at least not on the issues he listed there; they’re too conservative for him.

Secular Census points out that the numbers don’t support this move anyway – they really don’t support it. There are so few Republicans on Team Atheism it’s a joke.

There are several survey questions; let me show you just one:

For which presidential candidate did you vote in 2012? [Question visible only to those who've indicated they voted.]

  • 82.5% Barack Obama
  • 06.2% Jill Stein
  • 03.1% Gary Johnson
  • 00.9% Mitt Romney

[remainder were other / can't remember / etc.]

See what I mean? Does it seem worth pissing off that 88% for the hope of attracting some of the .9%? That’s POINT nine percent. Does it?

I would say no.

Historically, secular identity organizations have gone to some trouble to accommodate their conservative minorities, taking care not to alienate Republican and/or libertarian members with positions too far to the left on issues (like reproductive rights) that might be seen as “non-core.” One of our motivations for creating the American Secular Census was, in fact, to try to quantify the prevalence of conservatism among Secular Americans, since we have suspected for some time that it is less than believed by organizations’ leaders, boards, and staff. So far, our statistics have borne out this theory. So why are groups continuing to accommodate — and now actively courting — conservatives into the secular movement, especially at a time when organizations’ support for, and relevance to, women is being debated?

Maybe secular leaders aren’t aware of these political statistics …? Except that they are. These very figures were posted by us on a listserv of leader-subscribers of these two and many other organizations in July of 2013, following a claim by one leader that 30% of secular voters are Republican. We asked for a citation on that figure, were never given a primary source for it, and then posted these figures as clarification for our request. There was no followup to our post.

That one leader was Edwina Rogers of SCA.

So, yeah. Many of us have been getting increasingly alienated from the atheist and secularist movements because they seem to have shitty politics on a lot of issues. The Secular Census post shows us that they’re not even making a good cynical move.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Lighter than air

Mar 9th, 2014 1:25 pm | By

A post about “sex positive feminism” at the New Statesman.

Time was when the very word “feminist” was transgressive. These day people rarely object to it. There’s a bitter irony to the fact that “but I’m a feminist” has become one of those phrases by which male dominance can be positively reinforced. “But I’m a feminist and I don’t mind objectification / unpaid work / sexual harassment / being called a cunt!” The implication is that we’ve come full circle. Feminism has worked through all of its issues and realised that the grown-ups were right all along. All that stuff we used to call oppression? We’re totes cool with it now.

It’s certainly not true that “these days people rarely object to” the word “feminism.” Hah! If only. And usually the people who make a big show of not minding sexual harassment or being called a cunt are not people who self-identify as feminists. But other than that, yes; there’s a real point there; not a new point, but a real one. There’s a surprisingly large amount of hipster sexism out there, of people who think it’s just so last century to pay any attention to things like sexist epithets or sexual harassment, who think the only right response to such concerns is “lighten up” or “shut the fuck up, cunt.”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The only book worth reading

Mar 9th, 2014 12:58 pm | By

Deeyah talks about her life, at Women News Network for International Women’s Day.

Her grandfather was a pillar of the Norwegian Muslim community, and very religious, a one-book guy. Her father went the opposite way.

For my grandfather, the only book worth reading was the Qur’an, but my father loved all kinds of books and music: cabinets bulged with vinyl LPs, bookshelves were crammed with works as diverse as histories of colonialism and the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, mythology, theatre and innumerable collections of Urdu poetry. From cramped student accommodation to a semi-detached house, this precious resource of human knowledge traveled with the family, growing ever larger. And this was not the only resource my father collected: our house was a gathering place for intellectuals and dissidents, often sharing their criticisms of General Zia a-Haq and his Islamization project for Pakistan in the 1980s.

Her mother was a teacher.

My mother was often busy making sandwiches for the immigrant children she taught, who otherwise might have gone hungry. She was an ocean of love, not just for us, but for everyone who needed it: she helped in women’s shelters, often with women who had been rejected by their own families. As a teacher, and as an interpreter, she helped people deal with their problems, unsparingly generous with her time and attention.

It was through her I first learned of women who were forced into marriages, who were beaten, and who kept their silence in the name of family ‘honour.’

Her father overheard her singing to herself one day and promptly got rid of all her toys and pushed her to excel at music as well as her studies. It sounds quite ferocious, but to her also worth it.

But to other people? That’s a different story.

In one respect, I felt that I was bridging divides; presenting a positive image of immigrants in Norway; and breaking down the stark divisions of us and them through music, shaking off the cruel slurs of my childhood. But to maintain this fiction I had to hide a different and unexpected source of hostility: that which came from my parents’ community.

This became more intense the more successful I became: a hardcore of fundamentalists identified women singing and working as agents against the doctrine of the four walls. First fundamentalists targeted my father, demanding that he prevent me from singing and performing publicly. When this failed, they moved on to my grandfather, a man with a reputation for piety, who they felt would be more sympathetic to their aims. But when it became clear that no male authority could stop me from singing, their aggression came squarely at me.

On one occasion, I was threatened with a knife, and on another, a failed abduction attempt. My discomfort around performance was doubled by the sense of threat and surveillance, most pointedly at an anti-violence concert in Oslo. It was my home-town and many of my friends were in the audience, so I was determined to put on a good show. A few songs into the set I could see fights breaking out at the back of the crowd. I moved towards the front of the stage, and some corrosive chemical was sprayed in my face and eyes. Blinded, I desperately tried to signal to my bandmates that I couldn’t see, turning my back to the audience, but they didn’t pick up on my signals. My eyes refused to open: tears ran down my neck. The pain was unbearable. I kept singing.

She left Norway at age 17 to escape that kind of thing. She made music. She got involved with things.

Emerging from a tunnel of anger and self-doubt, I found inside an activist as well as an artist. Linking with women’s rights activists recalled the passion and commitment of the Pakistani feminists gathered at my father’s house, so many years ago. The experiences of the attempts to suppress my music led me to take an active role in support of the Freemuse organization, who stand against the censorship of music, not just of those silenced by fundamentalists, but also those subjected to state persecution for their politics. Our first co-production was Listen To The Banned, a compilation CD of musicians who had persisted with their art through imprisonment, censorship and injury.

She made her award-winning documentary about the murder of Banaz Mahmod.

Through all of these stories and experiences, the connecting thread has been about personal liberty, whether to sing, to love, to study or to work according to the calls of one’s own heart, to realize our potential in the world, to raise our voices without fear. This is my vocation and my art, whatever form it may take, music, activism or filmmaking, and whatever follows.

My voice will be raised for human rights for as long as I have breath.

Thank you Deeyah.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Culturally pressured

Mar 8th, 2014 4:18 pm | By

Kiran Opal has marked International Women’s Day by putting together accounts by 17 ex-Muslim women on her blog.

For those of us who have left Islam as a faith and as an identity, the pressure to stay silent is intense. For many ExMuslims, the price for speaking out about their skepticism, atheism, or agnosticism, is often very high. There is no one monolithic Muslim identity; there is nothing essentially, inherently “Muslim” about someone born into a Muslim family. Yet, for too many people, Islam has become a racialized identity. Many Muslims and non-Muslims see the Muslim identity as a race, not just a doctrine. Although ExMuslims, whether ‘out’ or ‘closeted’, do not identify as Muslim, others often insist on imposing this identity on us.

From the page on Muslim privilege:

What are the privileges you do NOT have as an Exmuslim woman that you did have as a Muslim woman? (e.g. speaking openly about your beliefs, etc.)

Taslima: I no longer have the luxury of openly speaking about my beliefs and opinion of Islam without offending my family and friends. My family makes sense, because they are Muslim, but as an ex-Muslim woman, I am more or less culturally pressured into silence by a lot of American “progressive” friends who will openly tell me to “stop being so Ayaan Hirsi Ali”.

From the page on ex-Muslim privilege:

What are the privileges you DO have as an Exmuslim woman that you did not have as a Muslim woman?


I’m freer than I would have ever been had things not gone the way they did ten years ago. I get to experience life to the fullest – the good and bad. I know what it’s like to fall in love, to be in a relationship, and to fall out of love or have my heart broken. I know what it’s like to try to make ends meet while working paycheck-to-paycheck. My friends hop, skip, and jump from longitude to longitude. I get to travel freely, explore freely, and think as much as my mind wants without the threat of hell or shame from a fake community.

The day I left Islam was the day humanity and science released me from the hell of religious solitary confinement.

I get to hug a dog and fall in love with him because he’s a beautiful soul – without horrifying screams from Muslims about washing my hands seven times to get rid of the pup’s kisses.

Read the whole thing.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Many chairs

Mar 8th, 2014 3:17 pm | By

So at CPAC they had a panel on GOP outreach to minorities.

John Hudak of the Brookings Institution is livetweeting CPAC and he tweeted a picture of the audience at that panel.

View image on Twitter

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Born of necessity

Mar 8th, 2014 1:45 pm | By

Leymah Gbowee says in Al Jazeera “Let’s celebrate International Women’s Day by remembering women around the world working towards peace.”

I am an optimist; there is beauty despite the ugliness. The bravery and strength of our mothers, daughters and sisters give me hope. Even when they are the ones that have been raped, abused and battered, they take part in the process of rehabilitation and resolution – from a neighbourhood conflict to an outright war. I am in awe of the ability of women to keep communities and families together even in the midst of wars and crises.

I have just returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I travelled with the Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation. War and violence have ravaged the nation, especially the women. We listened to stories that would keep you up at night. For too many of the women, each story started with “I was raped; I was in pain; I was upset and distraught…” But in the middle of their narrative, the beautiful is revealed: “…and then the women came; my sister came; my mother came; a women’s association heard and came…. They took me to a doctor; helped me with clothes; talked to me and then I regained strength… and now I am able to at least think about living again.”

The beautiful line is how women, despite the ugliness of violence, have an unshakeable sense of sisterhood and solidarity. Regardless of what the world calls DRC, I call it the “Capital of Sisterhood and Solidarity”. Their enduring hope compels every one of us to fight for peace.

Maybe with peace there will be less solidarity, because less need for solidarity. It would be worth it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: You can’t teach if you are not a learner

Mar 8th, 2014 1:39 pm | By

Originally a comment by Gordon Willis on Teach the children well.

I am a private teacher, teaching one-to-one. I teach both adults and children. Some of the children, invariably girls, come from Hong Kong or mainland China. They come aged 13 or 14 or 15, like English children to a boarding school, except that they come alone, because their parents can’t afford the fare for both themselves and their daughters. And they find digs and join a new school of completely foreign people, and they stay, and they learn, and they do not (apparently) suffer trauma and angst and complexes and lack-of-religion, even though their English is terrible (one young lady of 17 studying A-level music with me a couple of years ago told me that she preferred it here, though she hadn’t seen very much of her parents since she was 13, and her English is still pretty bad). Though they are very much alone they just get on with it. Culture, probably. They believe in what they are to do, and they do it. It’s amazing and admirable.

There are problems sometimes, of course. Part of being a teacher is to recognise problems and deal with them. The secret is to shut up and let the student just be. There is no reason to suppose that one has answers, but there is great benefit in simply listening and offering something immediately practical, something that can be grasped and used. Poe clearly feels that he ought to intervene and offer a life strategy to each student, as though each student were not an individual and discrete person but an object which must be changed and directed for life. He feels responsible, by which I mean that he feels that he ought to direct, not merely teach, as though he aspired to offer a life-plan for every young person. Teaching is about learning, and you can’t teach if you are not a learner.

A teacher is not someone who knows everything (and so can “teach”) but someone who understands learning, and the vital importance of learning, and who knows that learning never ends, and that whoever stops learning is not an “accomplished” adult but a carcass fit only for worms or the crematorium. A good teacher can transform a child’s life, but it might not happen, and if it does one might never know. A good teacher is just a teacher.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

“Women Empowerment: An Alternative in Focus”

Mar 8th, 2014 12:10 pm | By

How to celebrate International Women’s Day at Aligarh Muslim University.

Women students in flowing burqas talk about how purdah is the “purest form of existence for a woman”. They explain how capitalism — with its notions of financial independence or a career for women — is anti-women.

Models are on display to help explain how purdah is to be observed.

And then, apparently in a concession to more “modern” views, the women also speak about dowry, foeticide, sexual violence and women’s health.

All this is part of a three-day exhibition that started on Friday at one of Aligarh Muslim University’s women’s hostels, Abdullah Hall, to — ironically — mark International Women’s Day.

What did they say about dowry and sexual violence? That they’re the “purest form of existence for a woman”?

Anam Rais Ansari, one of the organisers, and a student of law, said they were providing “Islamic solutions” to women’s problems.

The group has organised a talk titled ‘Women Empowerment: An Alternative in Focus’, at Kennedy Hall on the campus on March 8.

Fliers on campus, and a huge poster at the university gate, show senior lawyer and feminist Vrinda Grover as one of the speakers.

However, when contacted, Grover said she had pulled out of the function after she came to know about the group and its activities.

“I am no longer part of (the AMU) function. The views of the organisers are extremely regressive. They are trying to tell women how to dress and how to live,” Grover said.

But Abdul Rauf, a representative of the group, who is a research scholar at the biochemistry department, said: “We have invited Grover. She will come.”

I love the title. “Women Empowerment: An Alternative in Focus” – yes that’s an alternative all right.

‘Students of AMU’ was formed in 2010, and has significant influence on the campus now. It enjoys the support of some teachers and students and, apparently, of AMU authorities as well. The group is known for its regressive views on women and women’s rights.

A recent post on its Facebook page reads: “Sisters, even though our brothers are responsible for their own gaze, we are responsible for what we give them to gaze at!!” One of the posts profiles four Western women who recently converted to Islam.

One of the over 30 lectures the group has organised in the past was titled ‘Hijab: The beauty of Islam’. The group is alleged to have recently scuttled an initiative to get men and women students of the campus together on a single platform to protest against the alleged molestation of a Kashmiri student by a teacher.

A student of the law faculty said: “‘Students of AMU’ is subverting the secular discourse at the university, and is promoting conservatism on campus. They prefer to call themselves an Islamist body.”

It all sounds very familiar. You get the same thing at UK universities, with the addition of clueless students who think they’re supporting something progressive and leftwing by supporting Islamists.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)