Recently, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson caused a slight tremor on the blogosphere’s Richter scale when she opined in a video commentary that atheists should “stay home during the general election in November” because “we are ignored.” This raised the ire of at least a handful of folks, among them AC Chase, who called for Johnson’s immediate resignation as AA prexy, and VJack over at Atheist Revolution.
I agree with those who have condemned Johnson, though whether or not she resigns from AA (and she won’t) is a matter of complete indifference to me. I’ve never been a member of American Atheists and have no particular interest in joining, though I know a lot of folks who are members and support their freedom to be involved in atheist activism in whatever avenue they feel is best. Johnson doesn’t represent me and never will. However, if there is a perception out there that Johnson, and by turns AA, does represent the views of all American atheists and it seems to be a perception AA encourages then certainly some correctives are in order.
I admire AA on the one hand for being an organization that gets things done. The Godless Americans March on Washington held back in 2002, which drew about 2,500 atheists from around the country to a rally that raised public awareness of atheists as involved voters, would have been unheard of only a handful of years before, given the nature of atheists as rugged, stubborn individualists who frantically wish to avoid even the appearance of groupthink. On the other hand and I am not alone in this criticism the organization’s presumptuousness in positioning itself as the public voice for atheists nationwide can be irritating at times. The last thing we need is some godless equivalent of the SBC.
What is amazing to me about Johnson’s recent statement is that it seems to be a complete repudiation indeed, outright betrayal of everything that GAMOW was meant to establish. Perhaps this is because Johnson took GAMOW’s message that of encouraging atheists to be active participants in American politics too much to heart. She seems to have become radicalized. If no candidate is reaching out to the secular community specifically, then Johnson’s solution is for the godless to sit the whole thing out in November. Whereas in 2002 she was whipping us all up to get involved, six years later, she’s given up.
I hate to be Captain Obvious here, but how does demanding that candidates pander to atheists’ wants make atheists any different or better than the fundamentalist Christian “values voters” who gather at such appalling events as Justice Sunday demanding candidates whose platforms prioritize pandering to strictly conservative Christian interests? You know, the kinds of people who don’t give a shit about geopolitics or the war or the economy or the environment, but who will rush to the polls if they hear their pastor tell them So-and-So promises to outlaw gay marriages. If your atheism (or your theism, or your veganism, or your whateverism) is the only thing that matters to you when you go to the polls, then I’m afraid your views are pathetically narrow and selfish. There’s a hell of a lot more to me, if not to Ellen Johnson, than the fact that I’m an atheist. And I fail to see how my preferred candidate’s views on, say, troop withdrawal or lowering gas prices or the subprime lending crisis could possibly be rendered more or less valid if they somehow shoehorned their views on atheism into them. Those are unique issues in their own right, that affect every American, regardless of creed.
Back in 2000, when Nader split the Democratic vote and gave the presidency to Bush (settle down, flamers, it’s what happened), I remember the indignation from Nader voters, who repeatedly insisted that it was incredibly arrogant to assume they would have voted for Gore otherwise, and that by voting for Nader they were “voting their consciences.” I’m afraid that in this instance, they were confusing their “consciences” with their egos.
Similarly, this is what Johnson is doing. She’s confusing her principles with her ego, mistaking self-importance for integrity.
While we are all individuals with freedom of conscience, at the same time, we have to face the fact that life is sometimes all about playing the game. It’s unfortunate that we live under a two-party system of government that often comes down to voting the lesser of two evils, an act more about voting against the guy we hate the most as opposed to voting for someone we can actually stand.
Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to reality, which sucks quite often. Frankly, when faced with the choice of voting between “The Asshole,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Snowball’s Chance in Hell of Winning,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Good Chance of Upsetting the Asshole,” or “Fuck It, I’m Staying Home and Playing Mass Effect,” I just can’t bring myself to choose the latter. And even if my heart is telling me to vote for Mr. No-Chance-of-Winning Third-Party Spoiler, my rational mind, which has rarely led me astray, I’m pleased to say, will probably be telling me to go for the opponent with a reasonable chance. Because in the end, my vote isn’t about me at all, it’s about what will become of my country in the next 4-8 years. It’s hard, I suppose, for some to see the big picture that lies outside their narrow ideals. But there are times in life when reason must dictate that the big picture is bigger, and matters more, than those ideals. If you’re a person lucky enough to have “big picture” and “ideals” dovetailing all the time, great. But I don’t think many of us are that lucky. And it’s just irrational and unrealistic to think we can be.
This isn’t compromising your integrity, and it isn’t selling out your principles. It’s understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you. And that if you want to live in reality as an active participant rather than moving out to the woods and being a hermit all your life, then you’ll often be faced with less-than-ideal choices. I believe the word for it is politics. Change always comes in increments, hardly ever with the instant gratification most Americans have gotten used to. And if you want to have any say in that change, given the fact that 100 million people who aren’t exactly like you are taking part in the process as well, then you have to participate.
Damn right I’m voting, Ellen. Follow your advice and stay home, and we all get to watch the fundies continue to run roughshod over the country. Nope, that’s not a choice my principles can countenance.
Rant over, now this: mindful of the fact that this blog is independent of the non-profit organization Atheist Community of Austin and is not bound by the laws pertaining to said organizations, then with the primaries coming up tomorrow in Texas and Ohio, I endorse Barack Obama. He’s actually a candidate I do like, and, faced with a voting year in which I have a good guy to vote for and not the usual “least an asshole” conundrum, I offer my endorsement gladly. (And if you live in Fort Worth or its environs, then for fuck’s sake vote for Pat Hardy for the SBOE!)