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

Legality, Morality, and Dehumanization

January 25, 2013 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Criminalization, Drugs, Sex, Stratification

According to Oliver Willis, some of us on the left are dumb because we aren’t ready to declare that a woman arrested for prostitution with her son present is an open and shut case of wrongness. He claims it isn’t about whether or not we think prostitution should be legal. It is illegal. She brought her kid. She involved “her child in what is very clearly illegal activity.” End of story.

But does Willis really think that people should never do anything illegal? Back in November, Willis claimed that Martin Luther King was one of the most important figures in black American history. And in this piece, he asked “Do people on the left think that Martin Luther King simply held one protest and those in power immediately rushed to pass the Civil Rights Act?”

I certainly don’t think that MLK held one protest. I know that he held many protests. I also know that he spent quite a bit of time in jail for breaking the law, as did a whole lot of other people in the civil rights movement. It was, after all, MLK who said “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

But perhaps Willis just meant that children should never be involved in illegal activity, even the illegal activity he might find moral. It so happens that I am currently reading Freedom’s Children, interviews of people who were children during the civil rights movement. Kids were actively recruited by MLK and others to participate in protests and nonviolent disobedience. They integrated movie theaters and restaurants. They went to jail. They got their asses kicked. Does Willis think that shouldn’t have happened? I doubt it.

What about immigration, Oliver. You said Romney lost because he “embraced in a bear hug the most fringe anti-immigrant position out there.” You seem to support immigration reform and scoff at Republicans who use the term “amnesty” to refer to legalizing those who crossed our borders without papers. Do you think immigrants who crossed the border illegally with their children should be strung up from the nearest lamppost?

No. I don’t believe that this is really about legal or illegal. I think Willis would agree that disobeying unjust, immoral laws is perfectly acceptable. If not, he has some explaining to do about his love of MLK. This is about Willis’s opinion of sex work and the people who do it. It is about his willingness to dismiss and dehumanize someone because they did something he finds icky.

Back when I took my first class on the drug war, I had this click moment in my head. Even though I had never been in favor of the drug laws, even though I knew many people who were caught up in the injustice system, I never really recognized the scheme for what it was. How I never saw the process of dehumanization is incredible to me. I mean, I had been reading about Nazi Germany’s laws against Jews since grade school. I knew how vagrancy laws were used during Jim Crow. I understood how laws were enacted to criminalize certain groups and justify their oppression. But somehow I never saw it clearly when it came to the drug laws.

And it wasn’t until relatively recently that I really gave a lot of thought to the laws against sex work. Who are they meant to control? Where did they come from? Who is getting their freedom taken away? What is the result of the War on Sex Workers?

But Willis doesn’t want to ask those questions. He doesn’t want to ask why a person might do sex work. He doesn’t want to ask why sex work is looked down upon more than working for Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t want to ask why someone might have to bring their kid to work with them. To ask those questions would mean seeing that woman as a human being and not a “criminal” – that classification which justifies taking someone’s freedom, taking their children, marking them for life.

When someone dared suggest that perhaps the woman’s choices were limited and that we should try to understand more about her circumstances before we judge, Willis chose to get butthurt that people had lower standards for the poor. Apparently, he thinks that following the rules and working hard will eventually pay off for everyone – despite all the evidence to the contrary.

No, Willis. Asking questions, refusing to completely dehumanize that woman, is not a “degrading” assumption that “a poor person must break the law to eat and that that’s somehow okay.” It is an understanding that some human beings have more limited choices than others. It is an understanding that laws are often made for the purpose of controlling certain groups of people. It is the unwillingness to dehumanize and degrade.

Willis believes in “absolutes, ” by which he means that laws are laws and should be followed by all. Nobody gets a break. The guy who stole millions in mortgage fraud schemes is exactly the same as the starving guy who stole bread.  For him, anything else means “no moral guidance, no right and wrong… anarchy.”

Except that “no moral guidance” is not what anarchy means. Anarchy means no rulers. It means no hierarchies that allow a few powerful people to make laws that oppress the rest. It means understanding that moral and legal are not the same.  It means freedom, mutual aid, and respect. It means trying to understand what your fellow human beings are experiencing and not assuming that your morals and choices are universal.

Laws against sodomy, laws against miscegenation, laws against drugs, and laws against sex work have all been used to target marginalized people. And even when some of the people who support those laws have good intentions – like those who know how destructive drug abuse can be – they cannot just close their eyes to how the laws are used. That is immoral.

Intellect as Evasion

October 14, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Politics, Seeking

Normally, I like Jay Smooth.  But this video really irritated me.

I understand why people are critical of the anti-intellectualism displayed by right wing populists who seem so disdainful of reading books, processing facts, or critical thinking of any kind.  But it amazes me when otherwise observant people can’t see that anti-intellectualism is reactionary.  It is a reaction to the idea that there is a small cadre of elites who are uniquely able to make important decisions on behalf of all of us.

There is no essential difference between supporting a ruling class based on blue-blood birth or ivy league degrees – it’s usually one and the same anyway.

The Christine O’Donnell commercial Smooth refers to is focused on morality, not intelligence.  She is saying that she will “do what you would do” in the context of not being a corrupt politician.  Now I have no doubt in my mind that she will be just as corrupt as the rest, but why not confront the issue of morality and corruption directly?  How does being an intellectual make someone more moral?  Is intellect the only thing of value in life?

For people who supposedly do a lot of critical thinking and evidence-based decision making, those who think like Smooth offer no proof that these supposedly smarter, more moral people are good leaders.  In fact, they seem completely blind to all evidence to the contrary.   Bill Clinton was smart and totally fucked us over.  Karl Rove is smart.  So is Paul Wolfowitz.  I hear Stalin was smart.

The intellectual hierarchy implicit in this way of thinking bugs me, but I think what bugs me even more is the abdication of responsibility.  In one part of the video, Smooth talks about how he wants to vote for someone who actually knows about stuff he doesn’t.  I realize that none of us can know everything, but that also includes politicians.  That’s (presumably) why they hold hearings and listen to people with expertise.

It reminds me of a blog comment that really irked me some time back.  The commenter was responding to the idea of anarchism.

I have literally no interest in doing much of the day to day running of a city myself, nor do I want to be at the mercy of “might makes right” types. I am happy to cede some powers to government to have them do those things for me.

So basically, the commenter wanted to be able to sit on their ass watching Top Chef without having to trouble themselves with the boring details of life.  And if their ability to do that is only won by giving power to people who will use it to enrich their friends, bomb children in Afghanistan, or put millions of poor people in jail?  Fuck em.

How selfish is that?

One of the reasons we constantly get screwed is that people think they can remain ignorant of policy and process.  They think they can leave the tedious stuff to others.  If we actually want any justice in the world, we need to take the time to learn boring shit.  We can’t just sit around in our underwear eating family-sized boxes of cereal, at least not all the time.  Maybe if we all got off our asses and did something we would find out that we are more capable than we have been led to believe.

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Freedom to Marry Week: Whose Marriage does the Church Approve?

February 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Religion, Stratification

join the conversationMost of the objection to gay marriage comes from religious people. As I’ve mentioned before, regular church attendance is the most telling factor when looking at who will be for or against gay marriage.

These people believe that marriage is a union before god. So if marriage is a joining of two people before god, do all gods count? If you are a christian, do you accept a marriage before Allah? Do you accept a marriage before the Buddha? Do you accept a pagan marriage? Do you accept a marriage between two people who don’t believe in god at all?

If I were to start a religion (let’s call it snarkism) whose main tenet was that only people of the same sex should get married, would that be an acceptable marriage before god? Even if it was christian in every other sense of the word?

Let’s get real here. The objections to gay marriage come largely from people who think they can impose their particular idea of morality on the rest of us. And it doesn’t matter if they get that morality from their religion or they use their religion as a shield for their prejudices. Enough already.

Religion, Education, and the Desire for Superiority

January 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Religion, Stratification

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about superiority and how many of our social problems and political paralysis stem from a seemingly universal need to feel superior.

James Baldwin* wrote that when he heard people talk about equality he always wondered, equal to what. People don’t want to be equal. They want to be superior. And we humans have invented all sorts of way to feel superior.

Throughout the colonized world, we inherited European ideas of the superiority of one race over another. In the Republic of Congo, it is height that makes Bantu feel superior. Superiority of gender is ubiquitous. And lets not forget classism. The U.S. may like to pretend that we are a classless society, but in a classless society one would not be judged on the car they drive, how big their McMansion is, or which designer’s name is written on their ass

The current financial crisis may cure us of some of our obsession with labels, bling, and the “real housewives” of the obnoxiously rich. And discrimination based on some accidents of birth is slowly becoming less socially acceptable, but other illusions of superiority stubbornly persist.

The antagonism between the “liberal elite” and the religious right is all about feelings of superiority on both sides. And the defensiveness of our discourse has everything to do with the implicit claims that, whichever side you are on, the other side considers you inferior in fundamental ways.

“Liberal elites” think they are better educated, more worldly, less racist, and more humane. After all, we have diversity. We have degrees. We speak other languages. Some don’t even eat meat. We are tolerant (of homosexuals, freaks, and premarital sex…evangelicals and conservatives, not so much).

“Heartland” people believe they are more hardworking, down to earth, family-oriented, self-sacrificing, god-fearing, and humane. After all, they join the military and lay their lives on the line for their country. They give their time and money to their church. They don’t go to the government for handouts. They take care of themselves, their families, and each other.

Our views of each other are the exact converse of all the things we think make us special. If we “elitists” think we are superior for our degrees and our diversity and our worldliness, we look down on those people in the “fly over states” as being backwards, uneducated, and ignorant.

Case in point, while I was at the University of California Santa Cruz, one of my teachers referred to conservatives in the middle of the country as people with the “bubba syndrome.” Mind you, this was a Latin American Latino Studies program. If anyone had suggested that any homophobic, anti-abortion, Latin Americans were “bubbas” (or the Spanish equivalent) a shitstorm would surely have ensued.

Meanwhile, what Sarah Palin refers to as the “real America” looks down on us coastal people as being pretentious, lazy, criminal, immoral, and selfish. Most of all, they point out, we look down on them. In fact, Republican House candidate Robin Hayes said that “liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.”

Steve J. Sterns wrote a book called Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru. The book is about Sendero Luminoso (the Maoist guerrilla group that terrorized Peru for years and is now, reportedly, in the midst of a resurgence). In the book, he describes the rift in Peruvian society, saying:

They also believed that ‘superior’ persons were marked by their benevolence toward inferior classes (a benevolence that liberals attributed to education and conservatives to religion).

Isn’t that a perfect description of the rift in our society as well? Conservatives believe that their religion makes them morally superior, while liberals believe it is their education that makes them morally superior. Conservatives give money to their church. Liberals give money to Amnesty International. Each thinks their choices are superior.

I’m not naive enough to believe that people will ever be rid of their desire to feel superior, but it would be nice if we challenged people more. The next time that some twenty-five year old snot implies that their degree confers wisdom, remind them that George Bush has an ivy league degree and it didn’t do him much good. And the next time someone implies that religion is the only source of morality, remind them that some of our greatest moral philosophers – from John Stuart Mill to Albert Camus – were atheists.

And lets not forget that the more strongly we feel superior to another group of people, the more we need them in order to define who we are. An educated person can only feel superior when there are other, less educated, people. A churchgoer can only feel superior when there are non-churchgoers to compare themselves to.

And now, for your amusement, is a concise description of our differences from Dave Barry.


* I can’t for the life of me remember which essay this was in, so if anyone could help me out with that I would be eternally grateful.

Religion and Politics: Making Peace with Obama’s Peacemaking

January 22, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Religion

I knew I was going to vote for Barack Obama as soon as I saw his 2006 Call to Renewal speech (video below).

I am one of those secularists he spoke of who “dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant.” I cringe at the mention of god in speeches and roll my eyes when athletes thank god for a touchdown. So for a politician to speak positively about religion and make me want to vote for him is astounding.

It was the reasonableness of his speech that impressed me.

The majority of Americans, Obama pointed out, are religious. Ninety percent of Americans believe in god. Morality, for many Americans, has a religious basis. And as “law is by definition a codification of our morality,” he argues that it would be impossible for a religious person to completely leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

And while I am wary about anyone who suggests even the slightest opening for religious morality in the public square, I was comforted by Obama’s statement that he does “not believe religious people have a monopoly on morality.” That may seem like an obvious thing, but it is a hard fought point with many religious people.

I believe strongly in democracy, as frustrating as it can be when you are in the minority. I agree with Obama that democracy requires dialogue. Democracy requires that people with wildly divergent views find common ground and Obama outlines a blueprint for finding that ground. Confront the differences head on. “Speak to people where they are at.” Do not concede difficult territory to “those with the most insular views.”

He tells secularists to stop avoiding religion and to respect that many people’s morality has a basis in their religious beliefs. To the other side he says that “democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific values…it requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason,” that they “can’t simply evoke god’s will.”

I was convinced. Here was a man who might actually believe in real democracy and who might have the ability to bridge some of those divides that paralyze our politics. He even made a rational case for why people are drawn to religion. He spoke of the desire for a “sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.” He spoke of religion as a source of hope. Hope is something even godless liberals seemed to have been looking for. We certainly voted for it.

I was convinced. But it is one thing to hear these ideas in a speech. It is quite another to see it in practice.

I saw not one, but three different christian clergy during the inauguration festivities. I hated the idea that our political changing of leadership came with such a strong christian component. For all Obama’s talk in his 2006 speech about America no longer being just a christian nation, when it came down to it, he chose christ-times-three.

Most troubling was his pick of Rick Warren, a man who compared homosexuality to incest. I was incensed, especially coming off of the Prop 8 fiasco in California, a fiasco Rick Warren was on the wrong side of. But we should not have been surprised to find Warren there. After all, Obama mentions him as a friend back in his 2006 speech. Obama (ostensibly) disagrees with Warren on many issues, but he feels he has found an evangelical leader with whom he has some common ground.

So how much should we tolerate the intolerant? Can we take civility too far? If Obama is able to start a dialogue with the religious right, is it worth elevating someone with many deplorable views into such a prominent position? If that dialogue makes it so that evangelicals don’t just automatically vote for whatever republican says they are anti-abortion and anti-homosexual, is it worth it?

Will dialogue moderate extremest views? When Obama says that he is going to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions I applaud his move towards diplomacy. Some of those leaders base their governance on Islamic law, kill homosexuals, and deny the holocaust. Yet, I sincerely believe that diplomacy is the best course of action.

When the Bush administration refused to talk to those leaders, because they did not want to give them credibility, I denigrated them as ideologues. But why is it so much easier for me to understand elevating Ahmedenajad than Rick Warren? Granted, Ahmedenajad was not asked to speak at the inauguration, but what if a grand gesture was the only thing that might have opened the door?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer can be found in how the three clergy responded to Obama’s invitation. Openly gay episcopalian Gene Robinson was very careful not to make a christian prayer, using phrases like “every religions god.” And he took his time to speak about poverty, disease, and discrimination against “refugees, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”

Reverend Joseph Lowery also used his time to talk about social justice, saying “deliver us from the exploitation of the poor…and from favoritism toward the rich.” Lowery used language that was significantly more christian in tenor. Although ending with some humor helped, being at a political function where millions of people are calling out amen is uncomfortable for me to say the least. Still, he did make an effort to talk about “inclusion not exclusion” and referenced “our churches, our temples, our mosques.” He acknowledged those of other faiths, if not those of no faith.

But it was Rick Warren whose invitation caused the most controversy and it is evangelicals who always seem to be shoving their religious beliefs down my throat. So I was most curious to see what Warren would say. In the beginning, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. He used his time to mark the historic occasion of electing the first African American president.

He asked for Obama to have wisdom, courage, and compassion. He called for respect for “all the earth” and for a “peaceful planet.” He even expressed that Americans are “united not by race, religion, or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all.”

Yet although Warren prayed for all of us to have humility, he showed us the ultimate arrogance by bringing jesus into our presidential inauguration and then reciting the lord’s prayer. This was disrespect, not just to nonbelievers, but to people of every other belief system.

I’m struggling to reconcile my philosophical beliefs in democracy and diplomacy with my intense feelings about the unjust and insulting views and manners of many believers. But I voted for Obama based on his ability to reason, to find common ground, to lead democratically, and to show all people respect – even those people who I don’t think deserve it.

This does not mean that I will blindly accept what Obama does. I’m still pissed about the lord’s prayer being recited and I will write letters and articles and scream from the rooftops when these things happen. I will fight that much harder for the rights of the GLBT community. I will fight that much harder for us nonbelievers to be shown some respect. I will fight that much harder for the arts and humanities, and other sources of non-religious morality, to be prioritized for a change.

But I’m also going to try and develop a little thicker skin and to respect the diplomatic efforts Obama is making. While the clergy did not mention us nonbelievers, Obama did. And as a man who was raised by a “secular humanist,” I believe that he respects us.

Obama ended his speech in 1996 by recounting an incident. A doctor with strong feelings against abortion wrote to him to express his disappointment that Obama’s website called all those against abortion extremists. Obama struck the doctor as being better than that. He gave Obama credit for being a just and fair minded person, despite this evidence to the contrary. Obama was impressed by the man’s letter. He changed his website. He tries to “extend the same presumption of good faith to others.”

Obama is extending that presumption of good faith to people like Rick Warren and, as much as I hate it, I guess I’m willing to see where it goes.

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 1 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 2 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 3 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 4 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 5 of 5

Inaugural Speech of Gene Robinson

Inaugural Speech of Joseph Lowery

Inaugural Speech of Rick Warren

Inaugural Speech of Barack Obama