TBT: Al Franken, Comic

This was originally posted in June 2008. It seems appropriate to revisit it now, six years later, when he’s up for reelection after his first term as senator. Just a comic, my ass.

I was on another blog this morning where someone was disparaging Al Franken as “this comic.” I’m crossposting my response here, because…

I’m getting tired of this “just a comic” trope. Being a successful comic, which Franken is, requires a number of talents useful to a politician. It requires you to be able to communicate to a broad range of people. It requires you to look through things that are “supposed to” be to see what is. It requires an ability keep your audience on your side while making them uncomfortable.

Now, sure, a comedian can take all that and never apply it beyond battle-of-the-sexes jokes. Maybe I don’t want that comedian to be a politician. But that isn’t what Franken has done. Have you read Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them or his other political books? Franken used his talents to dissect the conservative policy machine when almost no one else was doing it. He could have just taken potshots at personalities, but instead, he combined the potshots with substantial information on why those policies are based on bunk and actively hurtful.

So when someone dismisses Franken as a comic, I have to wonder. Have they paid no attention to Franken, or are they shilling for the other team and expecting that I’m too dumb to notice they don’t have any better arguments?

Between Now and November 4

So you’re upset about yesterday’s Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision that says your company can have a religion, and if it does, its religious rights trump your rights to affordable medical care. Good. You should be upset. You should be upset about most of the rulings the Supreme Court has been putting out over the last several years and this year in particular.

What are you going to do about it?

You can’t change the makeup of the court without illegal and arguably immoral actions, but this is not an acceptable situation. How are you going to change it?
[Read more…]

TBT: A Little Too Alive

This post was originally published in May 2009. It still creeps me out.

Rick pointed me at this video, a hand-cranked automaton of the “Don’t tase me, bro” guy. I expected it to be funny. It almost was–the first time. After that, it just got more disturbing. Seeing how the gears work made it even more so.

The artist, Jon Haddock, seems to specialize in rendering violence (including metaphoric violence, like his sculpture of the 107th Congress voting for the Patriot Act) in cartoonish ways. Some of his work actually is cartoons. Some of it just simplified, isolated in time or with pieces missing. Somehow, though, the extra work required to fully understand what you’re seeing just makes it worse.

This video of another automaton, titled Testimony of Sgt. Cortez (This Kind of Monster), is a case in point. It begins with watching a set of noise-makers. You never see what makes the noise. Only the perpetrators of the crime are ever seen. The victims are not. It doesn’t help.

“Mission Creep”: Easier Than It Sounds

Greta Christina has been writing a great series taking apart the argument that atheist groups working on social justice causes is “mission creep”. I suggest reading the whole series:

If you don’t want to read them all, you should at least take this message away:

I don’t know how much more clearly to say this: IT IS BROKEN. It is badly broken. Many marginalized people already feel very alienated from organized atheism because their/our issues get ignored, dismissed, trivialized, and worse. As I’ve said more than once in these conversations: The status quo is not neutral. Doing nothing is doing something. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is not a neutral act – it is contributing to the problem.

This needs to be understood and emphasized. When you raise objections to including social justice in the activities (and operations) of your group, this is what you need to weigh those objections against. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about this idea that it’s hard to bring social justice activities into an established community group, and I want to talk about it from my perspective as the associate president of one of the largest atheist community groups in the U.S.

This isn’t as hard as you think it is. [Read more…]

I’m Just a Bill

Two bills, technically, as of sometime today. This was introduced in the House a week or two ago. It should be introduced in the Senate today. There’s no chance it will be passed or even receive a hearing this session, but this gives us an official version to start building support around. Isn’t it pretty?

Photo of Minnesota House bill #2966, allowing atheist and humanist nonprofits that sponsor training for marriage officiants to appoint such officiants.The funny thing about this bill is that it’s very close to what we started with. That’s because another member of the House independently introduced bills to make mayors and notaries public able to officiate weddings. We support both of those bills, so we’ll work with the people pushing them rather than start anything ourselves. Those bills have received hearings, where training turned out to be an important issue for committee members. That means that temporary officiants may be a dead proposition for the time being.

I Like My Politicians

No, this isn’t an April Fools joke. I’m genuinely pleased with the representation I have at the local, state, and national level. Perfectly pleased? Of course not. But disappointments are pretty rare.

Take, for example, the recent release of the Secular Coalition for America report cards for the House and the Senate.

Representative Keith Ellison: A

Senator Al Franken: A

Senator Amy Klobuchar: B

I am not generally as fond of pro-business Democrat Klobuchar as I am of my more progressive elected representatives, but in this case, it only took not sponsoring a bill to go from an A to a B. There was less nonsense overall in the Senate last year.

How did I get so lucky? Well, some of it is the “luck” of living in an arty city with a huge queer population where everyone bikes everywhere as many months of the year as possible. That really only explains Ellison, though. [Read more…]

What Hemant Wouldn’t Print

One of the folks at Secular Woman asked me to draft a response to the “pro-life” post at Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog. It was originally to be a guest post at Friendly Atheist, but Hemant decided not to publish this because he decided it didn’t fit the very narrow parameters he had set for a response to that post. He was willing to post the “pro-life” propaganda, but he was not willing to publish this. You can read Secular Woman’s take on his refusal here.

We at Secular Woman appreciate Hemant reaching out and clearing up the miscommunication over whether he was willing to host a pro-choice position on his blog. His apparent refusal was all the more alarming because it was unexpected, and we’re happy to see that part of this matter be resolved so easily.

Hemant asked for “A) a rebuttal to the specific things Kristine wrote about and B) the facts/data behind why being pro-choice makes sense”. While we understand why either of these might be considered the appropriate response to publishing a poorly reasoned, pro-life argument without comment, we feel those are not what the atheist community most needs right now. PZ Myers and Brianne Bilyeu have ably addressed the pseudoscience and non sequiturs of the original post. Avicenna has dealt with the humanitarian cost of “pro-life” stances. Commenters on the original post and across the atheist internet have made the argument that the bodily autonomy of people with a uterus does not disappear when that uterus is filled, the argument on which current legal rights are based, and they’ve done it repeatedly and well.

There is no need for Secular Woman to repeat the work of others. Instead, we would add our voices to those saying that playing at debate for the sake of debate on this matter is disrespectful to those nonbelievers (and believers) who face the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, it adds to the voluminous threats to health and liberty they already face. [Read more…]

The Fault Is Not in Our Technology

Finally, the folks who are looking for problems with GMO crops have what they’ve been looking for.

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

Of course, this isn’t a strictly GMO-related problem. This is a problem of good crop management being more expensive than poor crop management. So the good crop management didn’t happen, and now we have rootworms that are happy eating the modified corn.

The next time someone tells you technology will solve what is fundamentally a regulatory problem, remember that unless we regulate the technology, we don’t solve the problem.

Socialism, Rising Tides, and Identity Politics

Cait is one of the people who donated to help get me to Women in Secularism 3. In return, she asked me to address an argument.

I know a fair number of socialists whom I usually like but who have presented me with one version or another of this argument too many times over the years. Various versions of this argument were made as General Assemblies sorted themselves out in the Occupy movement. I’m sure it predates me as well. It goes something like this.

We need to address class issues. Women are severely affected by poverty. Racial minorities are severely affected by poverty. We must put aside these issues of identity politics to focus on what we all have in common, which is our relationship to capital. If you play identity politics, you’re serving the interests of the current owners of capital.

Here is one particularly lofty and recommended form of this argument, lest I be accused of strawmanning it.

Where identitarianism seeks to somehow unify the world’s often highly contradictory personal narratives of oppression into a coherent idea of social justice, Marxism looks at what makes the system itself tick, and finds that the vast majority of people have something very real in common: their position within the economy, i.e. their relationship to capital and the means of production. It’s around this that it seeks to rally people – not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests. Ideologies of social division, in the socialist view, mainly exist to keep people from realizing precisely those interests. Divide and conquer, as they say.

Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.

It’s got all the hallmarks: reduction of things like sexism and racism into mere personal interactions, implying that identities other than class identities are made up, the idea that critiquing socialists is playing into the hands of capitalists, calls for the vague ideal of “unity”, equation of privilege with sin. But boy, the words are big and the horse is high. More importantly, it has the same failure that all arguments of this stripe exhibit. The author of this piece is unwilling or unable to address the fact that not all power comes from capital. [Read more…]

Getting Drunk and Acting Like a Train Wreck

My friend Cait Quinn posted this last weekend. I’ve been friends with several Irish bands over the years, and as such, I really appreciated it. I asked her for permission to share it as a guest post. Keep this in mind as you plan your weekend festivities. I’ll just add that, not only are you not part of the Irish Republican Army, but (unless you’re part of a local indigenous group) the people around you aren’t the occupation either. If you’re feeling oppressed, go get involved in politics.

So I’m going to engage in my St. Patrick’s Day rant a little early. Sorry, I’ve just had it. Celebrating the Irish culture by drinking and acting like a total barbarian is choosing to behave in the exact manner of the Irish stereotype. It is a stereotype that is not all in good fun, it is not irreverent and harmless it is the caricature that was used for hundreds of years to justify occupation, forced labor, deportation and restrictions on the Irish people’s rights and autonomy. It fueled the hatred of the Irish in America, legalized and normalized the British government’s continued occupation of the Irish people both in Ireland and in other British colonies. It was even used to justify slaver and murder. Oliver Cromwell killed over 200,000 Irish civilians by painting them as a dangerous, barbarous people.

So getting drunk and acting like a train wreck on St. Patrick’s day helps to perpetuate that very harmful narrative that to be Irish means that you drink and act like an ignorant fool. That you damage property and cannot control your behavior because dooood I’m totally wasted and let’s break stuff, Yay Ireland. If you are Irish or of Irish descent, your ancestors are ashamed of you. They fought incredibly hard to dispel the misconceptions that held the Irish people down. So shame on you.

And before anyone gives me crap about promoting respectability politics around this issue I’m not. What I’m saying is that if you are going to celebrate a people and it’s heritage imitating the behavior attributed to a people by their oppressors isn’t really a great way to do it. And if you are looking for an excuse to cut loose and break some rules, by all means do it, just don’t do it in the name of a culture and a people. Own it and say you are doing it for you.

This rant brought to you by the riots on Umass campus in the name of getting drunk and celebrating St. Patty’s Day.