Robin Williams – I disagree with PZ Myers and JT Eberhard

So Robin Williams has died. A much beloved comedian passed away. This is sad.

However another young black man seems to have been shot by an armed police force in the USA. These are two separate issues.

We speak about the militarisation of the police in the USA but we forget that the USA is an armed populace and we have the problem of “better to have something and not use it rather than better to not have something when you need it the most”.

The issue is oversight. The USA has little to no oversight and the shooting of Michael Brown. In the USA, the police are a symbol of distrust. Makes sense, for decades they were the tool of the people who were in power which before the 60s was effectively white people and minorities were effectively there to be oppressed and kept “In place”.

See we have a problem here. What do you do if a young man is wrongfully killed by the police and joins a litany of dead young men. We not that police are more willing to use force against people of colour. They are more willing to stop us. They are more willing to jail us. And our sentences are harder.

I joked about Brian Dunning getting 15 months in gaol for stealing a million dollars via white collar crime by pointing out if he stole $100 in a balaclava he may have gotten more time. If he was black, the feeling is that he would have taken a much harder sentence and he wouldn’t have had many options for bail.

The crux of the issue is that PZ has done something wrong. He’s created a “Dear Muslimah”. Robin Williams will be dearly missed by many who loved his work. And yes he was a deeply troubled man who may have committed suicide while Michael Brown died for (by all accounts) being a bit lippy to a copper. Being a snarky bastard is not a crime.

One cannot use one tragedy to belittle another. Even if one is a more pressing issue to the majority of people. This is no different from Richard Dawkins “Dear Muslimah” argument”. And I don’t think it is a conscious decision by the media to cover up the riots.

BUT PZ isn’t all wrong.

But JT is wrong too. See, Robin Williams death shows us the problem with the way you get your news in the USA.

Let us take a Comic Book Example. Spider Man. Remember what makes front page news? Spidey! Apparently the city of New York in Marvel has little to no political issues that cannot take a back seat to a leotarded crime fighter swinging about. It’s a comic, it’s silly but it often is the way with the news.

Between Bath and Pre-Lunch Beers. It was a phrase from a Carol Ann Duffy poem about war photographers. About how those horrific images and stories told a tale that made people feel a bit sad for a few minutes and then they just got on with their lives.

The tragic fact is that western rich people issues sells. People want to speak about the pop singer gone bad. The sportsman gone weird. The politician gone  wild. No one wants to speak about issues outside their monkeysphere.

It’s why I am more worried about Indian things and issues in other developing nations. It’s why I am more likely to speak about the Middle East. It’s why I am likely to take on British issues. I touch on these things because USA is the super power du jour and if I don’t I will alienate a large number of my readers. We have that same issue too.

I mean do you guys realise that there are major protests in Islamabad too? We feel less about it than we do about these in the USA. We feel less for the victims of ISIS than for the Palestinians because we have a greater window into the world of Palestine than into ISIS. There are people dying of Ebola, there are people dying of violence and all we are worried about is some unlucky American bloke who got killed by the police or a much luckier American who lost a battle against depression.

Hell, I see this when I write. People want to read stuff about the USA more than Malaysia. People want to LISTEN to voices that are popular more than people who are actually in the situations we discuss.

JT May hate the call out culture but there often is a lot to call out.

BUT JT is wrong. Grief and Charity are zero sum games. We may not think so but they truly are. We are repeatedly told that we cannot support every cause. We are repeatedly told that some of our causes need to take back seats. I disagree with JT because there are atheists out there who make a serious difference.

How many people are aware of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Indian, Atheist, Untouchable. And who tried to enshrine a secular constitution. India battles the forces of religious extremism and sectarianism hourly and it’s heart lies Ambedkar’s work. A BILLION people live under that work. 1 out of every 7 people alive today.

He isn’t American. So he languishes in relative obscurity among the primarily American dominated dialogue of atheism. We can  care about the loss of Robin Williams, but don’t forget that there are people we know nothing about who never see any of that care or love. Or outrage.

JT And PZ don’t speak for me. They speak for themselves. They have their own issues and their own views. Whoever said atheism is a monolith is a fool. It appears to be a monolith solely because we have a few people at the top. But there are newbies out there. There are alternative viewpoints. You can forge your own path. What JT calls call out culture is often vital to refining our views because atheists are often wrong. I didn’t change anything by correcting Sam “freaking” Harris. The guy has millions of followers and readers. I have like a couple of thousand. Do you think the world is going to change just because I disagreed with bloggers with a much bigger readership? Both JT and PZ are bigger fish within atheism. And they worked hard to get there. They did the tours, they fought the loonies and they stood up and were seen. I however said hello to PZ Myers then went for dinner when we met at Hebden Bridge.

While I find the death of Robin Williams sad, I also simply do not care as much as I do about my issues since those affect me more. I am sure a lot of black people would consider the Michael Brown riots to be a more pressing issue. The sad truth is that I would find more in common with Michael Brown’s protesters than Robin Williams. And this is something JT needs to understand.

That there are a few atheists who have a more pressing attachment to the death of Michael Brown. But they are in general outnumbered by those who knew who Robin Williams was. You say this is not a zero sum game but to those who who are more interested in the death of Michael Brown, the rise of acceptable police brutality and the notion that police need to be held more accountable, the media storm over Robin Williams seems like an insult. That a rich celebrity’s death affects the USA more than the very real problem of police brutality has to sting a little.

If PZ Myers was cruel and ill-reasoned in his Dear Robin Williams Fan then JT is callous and forgets that people have a direct fear outside atheism that they may be on the receiving end of an extra judicial beating or shooting. That our demographic is generally one that is more affected by Robin Williams’ death than by that of Michael Brown.

And both would do well to remember that these issues are separate and that the anger created is one of a frustration.

A man died wrongfully. Frustrating. A man died wrongly and is black fitting into a long history of violence  towards black people feeding into a cultural distrust for the police by black people that is based on events like this. Frustrating. The police have mishandled this. Frustrating. The protests are heavy and people have been injured creating riots and more police violence. Frustrating. The people fighting are portrayed as “animals” fitting into a long history of black people and people of colour being portrayed as sub-humans. Frustrating. The brutality aimed at people of colour is often driven by the above “thought” as violence and mistreatment is excused. Frustrating. Protests are being silenced and reporters arrested for reporting on police violence resulting in an assault on freedom of the press. Frustrating.

And suddenly your major issue is seeing less media attention and is now a back seat issue because a famous person decided to kill himself.




  1. says

    I think PZ made a brilliant point rather poorly. I agree 100% with what PZ said. He is absolutely correct. I only wish he had been less callous about it.

    For the record, I say this as someone who felt Robin Williams’ death like a punch to the gut. I’m not sure I’ve ever even been in the same state as Robin Williams at the same time, and yet his death had me crying for two days, and contributed to a very disturbing thought I had the other night, a thought that came from a dark place I thought I had escaped years ago.

    I only began understand the problem in Ferguson after reading PZ’s initial post.

    I think PZ was too callous, but I also think he was right. The Mainstream Media (MSM), at least, appears to be using the tragic apparent suicide of Robin Williams to ignore what’s going on in Ferguson, MO. That disturbs the hell out of me, since what the police are doing should be front page news, at least here in the States, for a long time to come. Yet Robin Williams is front page news.

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t be covered. He should. Oh hell yes he should. But the MSM should not be allowed to use his death as a means of ignoring what’s going on in Ferguson.

    As for JT… well… he lost me a long time ago…

  2. Stefan says

    Thanks for posting that!

    Am I being blind or ignorant? What I really dislike about PZ’s callous words is that he seems to be practicing “Willful Ignorance” – Robin Williams and other celebrities enter our psyches similar to how a friend or family member would. I think PZ is committing the Vulcan fallacy, that we should all be automatons who proceed with pure logic. Yeah, I know(guess) he knows better and is just trying to drive home a point, but he actually sounds “stupid” in the process because he’s ignoring basic human nature. Not that anyone is going to miss me, but his type of posts are why I rarely visit Freethought Blogs anymore. They just seem like gratuitous swipes at all sorts of people.

  3. jenniferphillips says

    I agree completely, Nate. I’ve been offline for most of the last week. Checking in on Tuesday, I saw dozens of Facebook posts about Robin Williams (and like you I was hit hard by his death indeed) and only one that obliquely referred to ‘Ferguson’. I had to google it, because I had no idea what was going on. Then I read PZ’s post and realized the full scope of the media shell game.

    As callous as PZ’s post was, maybe that delivery was by design. Maybe the harsh tone that made me reflexively recoil because I was hurting from the loss of an individual who meant something to me was just what was needed to start me thinking more deeply about all the news stories that aren’t being covered.

  4. A Hermit says

    Well said.

    Most of the coverage I was seeing of Williams death was about depression and suicide and mental health, which I didn’t see as a bad thing. (Mind you that was mostly on Canadian TV so that may be a different animal…) And I saw PZ’s post right after watching live CNN coverage of Al Sharpton and Michael Brown’s father appealing for calm and for answers. I certainly wasn’t unaware of what was happening there, but again maybe that’s a function of where I get my news.

  5. smhll says

    Am I being blind or ignorant? What I really dislike about PZ’s callous words is that he seems to be practicing “Willful Ignorance” – Robin Williams and other celebrities enter our psyches similar to how a friend or family member would.

    For me, the issue is why it is so hard for Michael Brown to enter our psyches? His death is seared into the consciousness of his parents, friends and neighbors, but for many white people who don’t live in his town it’s mighty easy to shrug and quickly put away thoughts of the issue. I think this is what PZ wanted to talk about.

    I would hope that some of the libertarians who vocally disagree with some of PZ’s statements would be more upset about overbearing police forces that are presently interfering with rights of assembly and speech (phone recording) in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s pretty to easy to see the police state flexing and tightening its grip.

  6. Stefan says

    smhll: I hear ya, but…. the fact is that as humans this is how we react – we didn’t know Micheal Brown, and we find it horrendous, but it seems far away. It’s not right, but it’s difficult to alter the fact that this is how our brains work and it takes conscious effort to overcome it. My beef is with people writing about this as if they don’t realize the simple facts about how “People are”. Railing against our own tribal nature and pretending it doesn’t exist is not very helpful.

  7. says

    Delurking to agree with NateHevens. It’s so important to take the media to task for using Robin Williams’ death to avoid covering the racism in Ferguson, but the way PZ did so was callous. In particular: “it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction.” Many suicidal people believe the world would be better off without them. To suggest that Williams himself did ANYONE a favor by dying is just vile in that context.

  8. says

    Thank you. This is the most well thought out article I’ve yet seen on this week’s tragic events.

    I do understand why PZ was so harsh in his first post about the media overload covering Robin Williams, while seeming to ignore the murder of Michael Brown and the chaos still ruling Ferguson. But I like that you waited a few days and put together a well thought out piece that shows compassion for all sides.

    Well done.

  9. chinpokomon says

    I agree. Like I’ve said, PZ’s point was crass in the way it was put together, and most of it was a completely meaningless, “but there are starving children in Africa,” argument.

    We can deal with more than one issue at a time. I am adult. I have the ability to understand complexity and nuance. People dealing with mental illness is an issue that needs to be dealt with. Police brutality, particularly in poor and/or minority communities is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

    Also, the fact that the media has been covering this story non-stop for the last couple of days, and the fact that it has been the number one running story , while the Robin Williams outpouring has all but died off, makes his point just look weaker by the day.

  10. Bill H says

    Thank you. I too thought that PZ’s post was uncomfortably similar to Dawkin’s Dear Muslima. I can and do care about multiple things at the same time — and that seems utterly normal to me. Anyway the press is all over the Fergeson, MO story, leaving the Robin Williams tragedy to be a brief blip in the news cycle.

  11. Ed says

    PZ`s defender’s arguments that his statements weren’t offensive were also very close to similar conflicts involving Dawkins. The idea that he didn’t mean any harm by it (and I’m sure he didn’t ), and stated that he wasn’t being insensitive so–problem solved!

    That the media ignores brutality against young back men is hopefully a given for readers of humanist blogs. But there has been more discussion of mental illness and suicide sparked by Williams` death than I expected even in the mainstream media. It is also normal for a culture to celebrate and mourn its artists and storytellers.

    Why not call for increased coverage of police brutality and racism to come at the expense of shows on nonsensical paranormal claims, detailed news reports on petty crimes, tawdry sex scandals, coverage of the Tea Party the advertising of worthless junk?

    Why bring the suicide of a disturbed but brilliant and widely admired person into it at all? The jokey suggestion that Williams “did them a favor” tells me that Myers wasn’t just looking using the opportunity to contrast the way society responds to life and death issues differently across class and racial lines.

    To mentally ill people who are constantly given meaningless snap out of it advice and lectures on how they should be grateful for life, it had great potential to offend and hurt. It’s like drawing attention to the Gaza crisis by saying to someone “So someone you care about died of cancer at 40. Big deal! Look at all the children and youth dying in Gaza who would have been glad for the chance to live till 40.”

  12. Hunt says

    Thanks for being the only other FtB blogger who has even broached the topic. I know it sometimes takes guts to voice an opinion against the boss. +10 for doing it.

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