Read a banned book

Twigged to this a little late, but apparently it’s Banned Books Week until the 4th. Now of course, one does not need a formally dedicated week in which to read a banned book. But it’s always good to support the efforts of the American Library Association in bringing to light all of the attempts at censorship that — amazingly, considering it’s 2008 — still go on whenever someone’s precious ideology is offended.

So celebrate by reading a banned book. One that’s on the list of most frequently challenged titles is, of course, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, which is about six million and three times better than the movie made of it. (So if you saw and disliked the movie, that shouldn’t steer you away from giving the book a shot. Just sayin’.) And its sequels only ramp up the challenges to religion. There’s also Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, which had the good fortune to be made into an excellent movie, and both versions of which paint a less than flattering picture of the culture within Catholic schools.

Aggressive Atheist Extremists

Maybe you’ve seen the PhillyCOR billboard recently? Floaty clouds on a blue sky, with the text “Don’t believe in god?” on top, and “You are not alone,” on the bottom. It’s an invitation to disenfranchised atheists to get in touch with local humanist, atheist, free-thought or secular organizations in their areas. And it’s as inoffensive a message as I’ve ever seen from any atheist group. No attack on religion. No invitation to anyone to reconsider their beliefs. Just a note to those who already don’t believe, who think they’re on their own, to encourage them and let them know there are like-minded people “out there” who would like to get to know them and offer them camaraderie and community involvement. PhillyCOR actually even works alongside religious organizations to support charitable endeavors.

So, here again we have the age-old question: Is there any way—at all—that an atheist can express his opinion that won’t be considered an attack on or offense to believers?

The answer, PhillyCOR has now made clear, is “no.”

In an interview with Fox News, Family Research Council’s own Peter Sprigg had this to say about the board:

“This billboard in Philadelphia seems to represent a trend—a new assertiveness, even aggressiveness on the part of atheists.”

You heard right. Putting up a billboard to let like-minded people know you exist—people who often think they are utterly alone—is “aggressive.” The billboard represents—is part of—a trend of “aggressiveness.” Am I to assume that Sprigg has never seen a Christian billboard before? He should come to Austin, where he would be able to see several in a five mile stretch in any direction. And they don’t just appeal to other Christians—they appeal to everyone to come to church, accept Jesus, believe in god, convert to Christianity. Would Sprigg label Christians as a “hyper aggressive” group, then? I’m guessing not—but to be consistent, he actually would have to. If atheists today are “aggressive,” I can’t see how Sprigg doesn’t consider Christians to be hovering over the edge of “dangerous.”

Further, this man who claims atheists are being “aggressive” has the following to add:

“Atheists are very vigorous in promoting the separation of church and state, but with the extreme way that they interpret that concept, you would basically eliminate every mention of god from the public square, and that would amount to the establishment of atheism.”

First of all, it’s not about eliminating the mention of anything from any “public square.” People in the public square, speaking as private citizens, can say whatever they like. It’s people and institutions that are in any way representatives of government that cannot, and should not, promote any religious perspective—including the existence or nonexistence of any god or gods. That’s a little different, and perhaps a subtlety that is lost on people like Sprigg—although, if I am to speak frankly, I don’t believe it’s lost on him at all. I believe it to be an intentional misrepresentation—a strawman—intended to rile religious masses, because Sprigg knows that an accurate representation would not be nearly as compelling and effective in attaining that goal.

Free advice: When someone misrepresents their case, always, always, always ask “why?”

And while I am on misrepresentations, another interesting fact that Sprigg seems to conveniently have misplaced, is that one of the most active entities promoting separation of church and state is a group headed by the Reverend Barry Lynn, who often speaks on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since Sprigg’s group is so very interested in separation issues, I can’t imagine he is unaware of this. And yet, he promotes separation as an “atheist vs. theist” issue, in order to launch an unfounded attack on atheists and rally undeserved support to his own agenda to use the government, openly and unapologetically, to promote a worldview that just happens to align with conservative Christian religious ideologies.

Asking Sprigg to not use our government as a vehicle to push his religion onto others is somehow an “establishment of atheism.” I have pointed out before, but perhaps not at this blog, that asking that the government remove “under god” is in no way the equivalent of asking them to add “without a god” to the Pledge. Ensuring everyone, theists and atheists alike, is free from government sanctioned, promoted, or imposed religious ideology allows everyone, theists and atheists alike, the freedom to exercise their religion, or no religion, as they wish, by putting all religious ideologies on the same playing field—a field that is, and ever should be, found exclusively in the court of private practice.

The level of projection Sprigg employs is at least as bad as anything I have seen from any theist so far. He effortlessly scales the heights of hypocrisy as he accuses others of stepping out of line who are not, while he is guilty of absolutely all that he accuses. Ironically, even if atheists were guilty of all he accuses, they would be doing no more or less than their Sprigg-encouraged Christian counterparts, in so far as pushing their agenda via government and posting and promoting their ideology as far and wide as possible. So, how could Sprigg possibly criticize, even if atheists were guilty, without showing himself up as a raging hypocrite?

The real issue here is that Sprigg wants Christianity to enjoy special privilege and treatment from society, as well as from the government, without being able to actually explain why special status is merited. I would never advocate promoting atheism using the government. And yet, if I did, any criticism from Sprigg could be nothing less than stunning, as I’d be doing no more than he and his organization and religion are doing already (and have been doing for quite a long time).

It’s actually competition Sprigg fears—not competition from others asking government to endorse their religious views, too, but the competition that would exist if his own religious view was no longer allowed to use the government as a prop—if it had to exist, horror of horrors, on the same level upon which all other religious views and ideas are now safely relegated—far beneath his own. It isn’t that he thinks it’s wrong to empower and utilize the government to promote religious views at all. His actions illustrate that he very much supports using government to promote religious views and policies. They also illustrate, in no uncertain terms, that his real beef is that he wants his particular brand of religion to be the only one that gets to do it.

The MySpace kerfuffle

The atheist blogosphere erupted with indignation earlier this week, and quite justifiably, when it was revealed that the massive social networking site MySpace had summarily deleted the 35,000-member-strong Atheist and Agnostic Group without so much as a by-your-leave, even though the group had violated none of the site’s terms of service. This is seen as rampant religious bigotry and it probably is, although two groups I belong to, “Atheists” (4,828 members) and “SkepticSpace” (989 members) are still alive.

So I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it does seem as if the big group was targeted by angry Christians who complained loudly enough to force the deletion. If so, it just makes the fact that Christians still whine about being the ones censored and persecuted and “expelled” all the more egregiously self-serving and dishonest.

A lot of atheists are deleting their profiles, which I can’t imagine will hurt MySpace in the tiniest. After a lot of thought on the matter I’ve decided to keep mine up, but add the complete text of the Secular Students press release along with a comment voicing my own condemnation of MySpace’s apparent religious bigotry in a nice large font. Two days later they haven’t deleted me, which leads me to think there was some personal targeting going on and there isn’t (so far) some wholesale campaign to rid MySpace of the godless.

Lots of people slag MySpace, and I can see why, but I’ve actually found it quite useful. Mainly I’m using it to promote the documentary I’m working on (and working on and working on), and have so far “networked,” as it were, with lots of folks in indie film. I’ve also discovered a buttload of good bands I’d never have heard of otherwise. When my friend Hollye ran her cat shelter, she raised about $300 in Paypal donations through her MySpace page. So yeah, for all that it’s cheesy — no matter how big MySpace gets, it will probably never live down the rep it’s gotten in the media as “that teen site” where all the pedo stalkers hang out — I have no reason to think it sucks. Like anything else, it’s all in how you use it. (And to everyone who’s likely to raid the comments with glowing endorsements of Facebook, I must say I find that site completely boring and useless. I have a profile there but have almost never had a reason to log onto it.)

I’d suggest that if you’ve still got a MySpace page, then deck it out with proud proclamations of your atheism and your disapproval of the Atheist and Agnostic group’s unwarranted deletion. As MySpace is a privately owned (by Rupert Murdoch, surprise surprise) enterprise, I don’t see that anyone involved with the deleted group could have recourse to legal action or anything, but IANAL on that score. Just use your freedom of speech and use it loudly. We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it. If they delete you, well, it’s not like you’ve lost an investment or anything. And it will just prove that the site is run by reactionary, stupid religious bigots after all.

“Those who know what’s best for us….”

“…must rise and save us from ourselves.” So sang Canadian prog-rockers Rush in their 1981 track “Witch Hunt”. A quarter century later, the modern-day torch-bearing hysterics haven’t gone away.

I’m a little behind-hand on this, as I took a week’s blog break and don’t regularly read the local Austin paper. So it wasn’t until today that I saw the full-page ad that ran on page A14 of the November 9 issue of the Austin American-Statesman. In screamingly huge type it grabbed your attention with the button-mashing headline “The Most Despicable Crime Ever Committed Against America’s Children”!

The Catholic pedophilia scandal, you might ask? No, it’s all them evil liberals pushing violence and smut in our entertainment, poisoning, in the paranoiac words of Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper, our precious bodily fluids. The ad is exactly the same kind of reactionary drivel I thought was a relic of the Reagan years. (And as you read on, you’ll find that’s exactly its provenance.) To take its claims at face value, you’d think America was a real life version of a Halo 3 deathmatch, with maddened gun-packin’ teenagers running around wantonly blasting away at everyone and everything in sight (that is, when they aren’t gang-raping each other silly). It’s a lunatic Heironymous Bosch view of reality that, more than anything, reflects the utter, paralyzing fear under which religious conservatives live their lives. Or…is it just cynical manipulation run by dishonest, sleazy, exploitive hucksters to raise cash from those among the public susceptible to such easy manipulation?

The ad is a veritable smorgasbord of fallacies and irrationalism. It purports to offer evidence of the alleged brainwashing effects of violent and explicit media in sidebars with the header “The Truth”. Whenever wingnuts use the word “truth,” and especially when they capitalize it, just remember that immortal line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The “Truth” presented here takes the form of sensationalist headlines. “Police say 13-year-old molested girl after seeing sex on TV.” Egad. Well, what police? Where? Which 13-year-old? When? Oh, you want these claims backed up? Sorry. They don’t do that here. None of these headlines is sourced, which one would think would be a bottom-rung criterion for credibility. It’d sure help persuade me to the cause if, say, “Judge says film influenced boy to kill 2-year-old” was followed by “Such-and-Such Gazette, Month, Day, Year.” Otherwise, how do I know this is the truth? Oh, I see. It says so in the header.

The ad was placed by some outfit calling itself the Parents and Grandparents Alliance. There is no website URL printed in the ad, which immediately struck me as curious, especially in a day and age when everybody and his hamster and his hamster’s mice has, at the very least, a fucking MySpace if not blog or full-on website. Quick Googlage revealed a webpage at outragedcitizens.org, which is little more than an anemic version of the kind of hysteria featured in the newspaper ad. I say anemic because the ad actually featured denser content. But the format, particularly the use of unsourced alleged headlines as “evidence,” is no different. The web page, however, does feature a photo of has-been fundie crooner Pat Boone. You know, for street cred.

To find out what the Parents and Grandparents Alliance actually is, I had to check out this page at Sourcewatch, which reveals it’s an offshoot of Accuracy in Media, the right-wing media watchdog group run by Reed Irvine until his death in 2004. AIM began running these ads as far back as 2001 in the New York Times. Apparently it’s taken them six years to climb down the newspaper food chain to the Austin American-Statesman. Accuracy in Media has been doing its thing since 1969.

Since Google is fun, I thought I’d do a little more digging. But first, it’s interesting to note the difference in presentation between the outragedcitizens.org website and AIM’s own. The latter looks stately, journalistic and professional, while the former employs bright primary colors and blazing, 48-point headlines full of emotionally overwrought language. (Content-wise, they’re equally full of shit.) And while outragedcitizens.org says it’s not a fund-raising ad, the newspaper ad itself most definitely is, with a clip-out donations coupon at the bottom extolling all the parents and grandparents they hope they’ve terrified to “send in the ‘Outraged Citizens Petition’… You don’t need to send in any money to have your Petition added to the number we report. But we beg you to help. These ads cost up to $20,000 and more each. This is a grass roots campaign.”

Horseshit. It’s an establishment campaign. AIM’s corporate donors include Mobil Oil and Union Carbide, which no doubt reflects the organization’s global warming denialism. Neocon gazillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife gave AIM $2 million over a 20 year period, until he was embarrassed by the right’s failed attempt to concoct a bogus murder allegation against Bill Clinton in the case of Vince Foster’s suicide (a situation in which Irvine and AIM were major players). AIM has been responsible for a number of other vicious and wholly false wingnut smears, such as vilifying Walter Cronkite as a “Soviet dupe,” falsely accusing a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter of fabricating a story on a massacre in Kosovo (another source here), and getting another NYT reporter fired for reporting on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in 1981.

So far from being a “grass roots” anything, AIM and its bogus sockpuppets like the “Parents and Grandparents Alliance” are really tools of the entrenched neocon plutocracy. (Hey, how’s that for agitprop language!?) Since violent and sexy entertainment continues to be released and continues to meet with public approval (this ad hit the Statesman the same week that American Gangster was the #1 movie, with $80 million in ticket sales so far), it seems to me that Irvine’s successors at his “watchdog” group aren’t really lying awake nights over the thousands upon thousands of imaginary children who are running rampant, raping and pillaging after an all-night World of Warcraft marathon. It’s only when they need to get those donations rolling in, the ones they claim amount to 75% of their operating budget, that they sprinkle these fearmongering ads out among Bible Belt newspapers.

Thus it’s on the meager, hard-earned paychecks of the great unwashed — cowering in terror over the thought of a meth-hopped, FPS-addicted sk8er off his ritalin crashing through their front doors to chainsaw them into hamburger in an orgy of liberal-media-feuled lust and carnage — that AIM can pay to libel and defame their ideological and political opponents in their own neocon-friendly press.

Now who are the outraged citizens?

(For another detailed AIM critique, go here.)