Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Big Tents, Little Bridges, Vested Interests

August 24, 2012 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking, Stratification

Bridge in the Japanese Garden in San FranciscoThis piece over at Cubik’s Rube reminded me of something I have been wanting to write about for a while. James is worried that the atheism+ idea that Blag Hag wrote about, and that I linked to on Wed, will be just one more divide in a movement that already has plenty of “splits, schisms, and dichotomies.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about big tents and factions since the group I was working with disintegrated. I think one of our core problems was that we tried to be too much of a big tent, or at least we went about it the wrong way. We knew that people in the group had different political views, theories of change, and ways of working. We had different backgrounds and life experiences – age, gender, race, class, religion. And rather than tackling those differences head on, we avoided talking about them. It was a huge mistake. And we ended up bleeding people anyway.

If you spend any time studying social justice movements from the past, you will soon learn how many of them fell apart or were co-opted because different groups sold each other out. White workers threw black workers under the bus with the unions. Black men threw women under the bus with voting. White women threw women of color under the bus with the feminist movement. Trans people got thrown under the bus by the GLB community. And on and on.

And in the end, while there may be a few beneficiaries here and there, we all lost. We find ourselves fighting the same battles all over again. Clearly, we can’t just all break off into little affinity groups that only think about ourselves. Our liberation is tied together in a very real way.

At the same time, whenever you get people together that have wildly different backgrounds, privileges, interests, communication styles… you are going to spend a huge amount of your time just keeping the group together. If you don’t spend the time, you will lose people. But if you spend all your time dealing with those things then people will feel like you aren’t moving toward your goal. And you will lose people that way too. Not to mention that the most marginalized people will be FUCKING EXHAUSTED trying to beat their heads against everyone else’s blindnesses.

And let us throw in another conundrum while we are at it. In that atheism+ post, she inserts a long quote about how many of the people who have gotten involved in the atheist movement are people who are not affected by any other type of prejudice/oppression. Being an atheist is the one little speed-bump on the otherwise smooth road of their lives. And they are wholly uninterested in having their other privileges questioned.

It is pretty much impossible for me to work with anyone who can only see their little corner of the universe and stay willfully blind about everything else. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to them. I just can’t work with them. But as infuriating as it is for me to deal with people who can only see the one thing that affects them, it would be so much worse if they were coming in to white knight on some issue that they have not experienced and do not understand.

As (I believe it was) @manowax said at the Words, Beats & Life teach-in, “You have to have a vested interest to make change.” If atheist prejudice is the only thing that those people can see that they have a vested interest in, then that is what they should focus on. It is when something isn’t just an “issue” but your everyday life that you will see it through to the end. What choice do you have?

It reminds me of the beginning of this civil rights roundtable when they ask the participants to talk about why they are there. James Baldwin talks about being “born a negro.” Poitier says, “I became interested in civil rights struggle out of a necessity, to survive.” Belafonte talks about inheriting the struggle from his parents and grandparents. But Brando talks about Rosa Parks and Heston about talking to people at cocktail parties. Baldwin, Poitier, and Belafonte spent their lives struggling for their rights as human beings. Heston went back to cocktail parties and shilling for the NRA.

So there is nothing wrong with spending your time on the things that affect you, but somehow we also have to find ways to help people see how all the different struggles are connected. At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop throwing each other under the bus.

I should say here that I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting involved in a struggle where you are not the most affected. But I do think we need to understand how that struggle is connected to our own. We should be very careful about how we get involved and realistic about how dedicated we are to the issue, to the people, to the community. We can’t just drop in for a year and then skip out to a masters program, patting ourselves on the back the whole way.

So where does that leave us?

I think we should stop trying to have big tents. We need to focus on understanding our interests and how they connect. We should be building small, close-knit groups and a lot of little bridges.

In other words, stop seeing different experiences, backgrounds, and struggles as divisive and start seeing them as connective. Blag Hag is a bridge between feminists and atheists. Not all atheists are going to examine their other privileges. Not all feminists are going to examine theirs. But many will understand. That bridge is the beginning of how we are going to stop throwing each other under the bus.

We don’t need to worry that our movements will be divided. Large organizations only erase differences that shouldn’t be erased and grow hierarchies that shouldn’t be seeded. Successful social movements of the past have usually been made up of small, tight-knit communities and groups. They have been made up of people with long relationships and a lot of earned trust and respect. It wasn’t a thousand people who started the freedom rides. It was a handful. But that handful sparked something and others followed.

I think it is o.k. if we work on the issues that most affect us and with people that we like, understand, and respect. But we all have to take on the work of pushing to understand how the struggles are connected. And we have to make sure that we aren’t taking the easy way out by avoiding the uncomfortableness that comes from working with people whose cultures, experiences, marginalizations, etc. are difficult for us. We need to constantly be confronting ourselves.

The good news is that most of us are a part of many communities and struggles. So we can all be bridges. We can all work on the things that most affect us. We can all help each other to understand how those struggles are connected. We can work towards the same thing from different angles. Our work will be stronger for it.

Owning the Edges

September 30, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Religion

A few weeks ago, I attended a Busboys and Poets A.C.T.O.R. on Islamaphobia.  Six local Muslim panelists talked about their personal experiences.  Inevitably, the subject of what to do in the face of extremism came up.

As an atheist who keeps a toe in the atheist blogosphere, I have read quite a few posts challenging believers on extremism.  Believers say that they should not be judged by the extremists within their religion.  Many atheist bloggers have made the case that believers shouldn’t be able to get off so easily, that they do need to be held to account for what is done in the name of their ideology.  At least they need to respond to it.

As an atheist, it is easy for me to agree with that.  I don’t have anything invested in religion.  I don’t get anything out of it.  I just don’t get it.  But as an anarchist, I somewhat understand the position that religious folks find themselves in.  I very often find myself explaining that anarchists are not just molotov cocktail throwing tweens.  I have to explain that people whom many would consider extremists are not the beginning and end of anarchism.  And I find myself and my fellow anarchists are often at a loss as to how to respond to actions we find counterproductive.

Now I am not trying to compare the situation for Muslims in this country (and around the world) with that of anarchists.  And I am certainly not trying to compare the people who flew into the twin towers with people who throw rocks through Starbucks windows.  The differences are profound and, I hope, obvious.  But Muslims and Anarchists do find ourselves in a few of the same conundrums.

Few people understand our beliefs or have any interest in learning about them.  The media rarely speaks about us except when something destructive happens.  We have very little voice to combat mainstream portrayals of us.  And we don’t often do a very good job of using what voice we do have.  Perhaps most importantly, the panelists indicated that Muslims have also been neglecting some badly needed internal discussions about divisions, rifts, conflicts, privileges, and prejudices.

For the most part, the panelists talked about being a good person, following their path, and demonstrating by their actions that Muslims are not all violent extremists.  I get that.  I often say that – as a middle aged, peaceful, dorky, woman – I just try to be an anarchist that defies stereotypes.  But that doesn’t seem a sufficient response to the edges, the radicals, the fringe, the people whose actions make you cringe because you know your whole group will be judged by them.

None of the panelists were explicit about distancing themselves from extremists, but that was essentially what was meant by presenting a different image.  Mazi Mutafa of Words Beats Life; however, did not distance himself completely.  He said essentially that, while he may not agree with certain tactics, he will not disown people within his community just because he disagreed.  People do things in desperation, he said.  They are still a part of my community.

He owned the edges. And perhaps all communities need to own the edges, whether it is Muslims owning extremists, a southern town owning the KKK, or anarchists owning BANA (a racist, anarchist group that I will not link to).

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to delve into what that means in practice.  So perhaps we can have that discussion here.  Does a believer have a responsibility to own all the people who say they identify with their ideology?  What does that look like?  If not, how do you avoid it when people will just lump you together anyway?  Do we have a responsibility to discuss the divisions and rifts and factions?  Should those discussions be public?

Carnival of the Liberals No. 97

September 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

Welcome to Carnival of the Liberals.  Lots of good posts this month.  My highlights are preceded by asterisks and followed by short quotes.

It has been one hell of a month or so in the U.S.

The health care crisis, perfectly summed up by  Dave Away From Home’s stark graphic titled Cristina’s Health Insurance, continued to spark contentious debate and even an outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson during Obama’s health care speech.

Torture made headlines again after Eric Holder announced that he would investigate interrogators who went beyond allowed methods.  Talking heads argued about whether or not torture provided accurate information, but as Stump Lane points out in What is Torture For, torture is not intended to get accurate information.

** At Apple of Doubt, Friar Zero goes into excruciating detail about what torture is and Why Torture Matters.

Torture doesn’t provide reliable information, it doesn’t deter future acts of terrorism, it doesn’t separate the guilty from the innocent, it treats prisoners like irredeemable animals rather than men, it’s born out of a primeval need for retribution, it’s subjective and capricious, and it is antithetical to civilized justice.

Treating prisoners like irredeemable animals isn’t just limited to war on terror suspects.  This month saw increasing attention to the Texas execution of (likely innocent) Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire – a story Executed Today has been on for quite some time.  And Texas was also ground zero for some of the harshest criticisms of Obama’s speech to students, (Rough Fractals).

**The objections to Obama’s school speech appeared nonsensical.  The only explanation seemed to be that they were rooted in The Anti Obama Bigotry that Staring at Empty Pages describes.

It’s not acceptable to say that they don’t want a black president talking to their children, so they make up shit about political “indoctrination” and “subliminal” liberal messages, or compare him to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il (as Mark Steyn did last week), and won’t allow their children to listen to the president.

Those racism tinged objections continued on 9/12 with anti-government, anti-cap and trade, anti-health care, anti-everything protests as covered on Stupid Right Wingers in Observations From the Tea Bag Protest in DC – 9/12/09.  And now it looks as though anti-government sentiment may be the motive for the murder of a federal census worker, a death that God’s Own Party argues was the result of Fear, Paranoia and Ignorance propagated by right-wing leaders like Michelle Bachmann.

**Meanwhile, as Doctor Biobrain points out, the Counter-Productive Charges of Racism get us no closer to solving our problems.

And rather than discussing the merits of Obama’s proposal, the Republicans gleefully attack us for “playing the race card” and insist that we’re unfairly smearing all “real” Americans; while the media has fun describing the mud fight that ensues.

Ah yes, the media.  When they aren’t giving the Michelle Bachmanns of the world a stage, they are whining like toddlers.  See Mad Kane’s post, Chris Wallace Feels Dissed.  (Don’t feel too bad about the state of our media U.S., River’s Edge was compelled to write In Defense of Local Journalism upon hearing about the troubles of an actually useful major publisher of local newspapers in the UK.)

Is it really a shock that the media aren’t covering anything substantial?  The people who own the media are quite happy to keep us peons squabbling and vilifying one another.  They don’t want any commie George Bailey types inspiring people.  The fact that, as Liberal Agnostic Redneck points out, teabaggers are duped into defending Pottersville works out quite nicely for some.

With all of these crises, an impotent media, and a paralyzed populace, it is easy to get discouraged.  Unless you too enjoy getting your weekly exercise through uncivilized, senseless screaming like the kind Freechezeburgerz describes in Have an Argument and Call Me in the Morning, you might be in a fit of despair by now.

**I mean, where do we go from here?  I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to discover Some Possible Health Care Solutions of Rick Foreman’s in a health care reform bill amendment – perhaps his suggestion that

If you don’t have health care we can pass legislation that will just exclude you from the species. If you’re not considered human then there’s no need to worry about human rights.

The scariest part is that we are dealing with, what should be, easy issues like health care.  We better learn how to have real debates soon or we are going to be in serious trouble when the moral issues get more complicated.  Can you imagine the explosion that will occur when science finally figures out Sexual Reproduction for Same Sex Couples, an event The Chromosome Chronicles describes as not being as far fetched as you might think.  You thought surogacy and in vitro was controversial.  That aint nothin.

It would help if we were able to agree on verifiable facts, or even that there are such things.  But verifiable facts are the purview of science and science is currently in disrepute with a significant portion of the population.  Not even congress is interested in scientific information.

**It is precisely that problem that is addressed in the book Unscientific America.  Unfortunately, according to the Primate Diaries, the book focuses on Rebranding Science, rather than real solutions.

In focusing on science communication alone, rather than unequal access to scientific tools, Mooney and Kirshenbaum have chosen to focus on style rather than substance. They present a host of wrongs but think that mere cosmetic changes will reverse two decades of decline.

And while scientists and other logical thinkers try to figure out how to make science cool again, too many of our fellow citizens live in fact free environments. The gay marriage panic is a perfect example.  All the right’s freaking out has, of course, turned out to be as ridiculous as it sounded.

** Will the facts matter?  Will it matter that, as (((Billy the Atheist))) shows, The Right is Wrong Again: Gay Marriage Does Not Hurt Marriage?

Looks like allowing human rights for all humans did not hurt the family, or the institution of marriage, or destroy America, or any of the other absurdities being spouted by the radical right wing.  Instead, Massachusetts now has a lower divorce rate than it did when the legalized gay marriage.  Oopsie.

Maybe Rick is right and this is all Evidence of Conservatives Mental Imbalance.  Maybe we are all, as the Evolving Mind shows, Normally Biased toward information that supports our already held beliefs.  Maybe liberals and conservatives are just wired differently.  Honest Inquiry asks Are We Born Liberal? and discovers that, unlike conservatives who want predictable familiarity, liberals want change and inclusiveness.

**Mind you, that doesn’t mean that liberal-leaning groups are always so great at being inclusive.  Greta Christina shows, in her post Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and RacePart I and Part II, that progressive movements suffer from the same homogeneity and denial that plagues other groups.

People can have racist or sexist attitudes without being conscious of them. You don’t need to be a torch- wielding member of the KKK or Operation Rescue to say and think dumb things about race or gender. (As someone who has said and thought plenty of dumb things… believe me, I speak from experience.)

So is it hopeless?  Should we all just throw in the towel, buy a shit ton of really good drugs, and go party naked on a warm Caribbean beach until global warming or the nuclear arms race takes us all?  Although that does sound like a good vacation plan, I’m not giving up on democracy just yet.  Neither, luckily for us, is Greta Christina.

**So let me leave you with Greta’s post Decisions are Made by Those Who Show Up: Why Calling Congress Isn’t a Waste of Time, Part I and Part II. We should listen to Greta.  We should get (or stay) involved.  Because as frustrating as our political discourse might be right now, she is right.

When very few people get involved in politics — when very few people even bother to vote, and even fewer bother to call or email their elected representatives — then the few people who do bother are the ones who get listened to. The hard-line crazies get to set the terms of the debate. Them, and the people with money.

And that does it for this month’s Carnival of the Liberals.  If this post left you wanting more of Greta Christina (and really, who doesn’t want more Greta), she will be hosting next month’s edition – scheduled to come out on October 31st.

The Christianity of the Atheist Movement

August 04, 2009 By: Mel Category: Religion

In the last year, I’ve been hearing a lot about the atheist movement. It came as quite a surprise. I never really thought about my rights as an atheist. It isn’t that I wasn’t constantly frustrated with christians pushing their beliefs on me, especially politically. It was that I didn’t associate that frustration with being atheist.

I was raised jewish. As a jew, I was raised with the understanding that the history of my people was one long story of resisting christian supremacy. In the 1980s, when the Christian Coalition tried to infiltrate local politics in South Florida, it wasn’t atheists or homosexuals (who were actually the targets) who rallied to prevent them. It was the jewish community. Out atheists were nowhere to be found and it never occurred to me that they should be.

I was intrigued with the idea of an atheist movement and began to follow the stories and blogs. I even joined an atheist meetup and attended an event. And here is what I have come to realize about the atheist movement.

The atheist movement in the United States is very christian.

The fact that non-believers, especially those who are active in the movement, are more often men and more often white is a fairly common topic of conversation among atheists. Less common is discussion about the fact that the majority of atheists were raised christian.

I notice the christianness of the atheist movement most when I encounter those atheists who want to convert believers. Don’t get me wrong. Atheists have every right to try and convince others that they are right. And I’m all for the ascendancy of logic and humanism. But when these people make their arguments, they often make them without sensitivity to what religion means to someone when their religion is in the minority.

A white, European, christian in America can separate their ethnicity (if they even acknowledge they have one) from their religion. Not all of us can do that. If someone asks me if I believe in god, I say no. I tell them that I am an atheist. More often, I am asked what my background is. Then I usually say something like – I’m jewish, but I’m not a believer.

Now I don’t practice a religion. I don’t pay attention to religious tradition of any sort. I haven’t stepped foot in a temple since my bat mitzvah (the last time my mother made me go). But I cannot fully deny my jewishness just because I don’t believe. Nazis would not have given a shit whether or not I was actually a believer. The only reason christian atheists in America can separate their christianity out so clearly is that christianity is so ubiquitous here.

My point is this. Non-christians in America often have their identity intertwined with their religion in a way that most US christians couldn’t possibly understand. Denying my jewishness isn’t just a denial of the culture  I grew up in, and which is a part of me, it is an affront to centuries of people who fought death to preserve their culture.

I don’t mean to infer that leaving religion for a christian is easy. I’ve never known what it is like to be a part of the dominant religious group and couldn’t possibly know what it would be like to leave it.  Many christians are shunned when they come out to their families. The fact that I did not have that experience says more about my inability to become un-jewish than it does about the reasonableness of my family.

But Christians don’t become un-christian either, not completely.  They just don’t realize that christianity is culture as much as belief. Christianity is the default in this country. It is so dominant that christians think their culture is just American. It is isn’t just lazy Sundays and christmas vacations that are christian.  It is the food you eat, your childhood memories, the language you speak, and the language that speaks to you.

So, by all means, keep pushing religion out of politics. Keep fighting for reason.  But don’t make the mistake of thinking that others personal choices are the same. When your history involves having to fight for the right to practice your religion (and this goes for christians in some countries) your relationship to that religion is very different.