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.

Judge lifts injunction against Expelled

In an interesting development, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein (no relation to “Evolution Doesn’t Explain Gravity!” Ben) has ruled that Expelled can use the 15-second clip of John Lennon’s “Imagine” under the fair use doctrine. Over at PT, commenters are pointing out that this isn’t an end to the lawsuit, but it may be moot at this point. I disagree with the decision — I think it could open the gates to all manner of dodgy copyright infringement — but at this point it really has no impact either way for Expelled, which is already out of theaters in the US after tanking with a pitiful $7.5 million haul after six weeks. The movie simply wasn’t the takedown of science its producers were hoping for. But since they’ve created a nice little insulated world to live in, only exposing themselves to tightly controlled pre-release screenings to which the scientifically-illiterate choir were exclusively admitted, they’ll never know that. So it’s on to the church-basement DVD circuit, where it was going to end up anyway — while, off in the real world, science marches on and people with brains are actually learning new things.

I did find this part of the MSNBC article enlightening.

At a hearing last month, Falzone had argued that the segment of the song in the film — “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” — was central to the movie because “it represents the most popular and persuasive embodiment of this viewpoint that the world is better off without religion.”

The film, he said, is “asking if John Lennon was right and it’s concluding he was wrong.”

It’s a nice admission that religionists wouldn’t think the world a happy place unless they had absurd ideologies and irrational beliefs to kill and die for.

The ICR gets even more sleazy and desperate

Following in the morally bankrupt footsteps of Ben Stein and Expelled, the ICR is responding to its snub by the state with a PR campaign designed (and not intelligently) to paint themselves as heroic champions and martyrs to “free inquiry” whose work is being “stifled” by a hostile scientific mainstream. Those of you who opened the Austin paper today to page A16 were probably aghast to see the full-page, four-color ad they bought pushing this very fantasy.

This is how far creationism has fallen. Having never produced any actual scientific research to support their position, thwarted time and again by courts and school boards to push their openly religious position in classrooms, they have run out of ways to rebrand creationism with terms like “intelligent design” to slip past the lemon test, and are now reduced simply to pounding their widdle fists on their high-chair tables and bleating “It’s not faaaair!”

Their bogus “academic freedom” bills in Florida got stalled and died in committee, their movie flopped, the courts are eating their lunch, newspaper and media editorials are ridiculing them mercilessly. (Even arch-conservative John Darbyshire, a man so despicable he mocked the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting for not being brave enough to rush the shooter while he was spraying them with lead, derided Expelled and the whole ID movement as “shifty” and “morally corrupted…irredeemably.”) What are poor creationists to do? Well, certainly not science. That’s a hell of a lot more work than just placing newspaper ads. And besides, if you actually did scientific research, there’s that distressing risk your results would not back up your “doctrinal statement” you force your members to sign, that “All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week described in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and confirmed in Exodus 20:8-11. The creation record is factual, historical and perspicuous; thus all theories of origins or development which involve evolution in any form are false.” Yes, I know the ICR claims to do actual scientific research. But curiously, they do not submit this work to peer-reviewed scientific journals. All the better to sell their conspiracy theory and martyr fantasies, of course. But as Texas Citizens for Science points out:

Real scientists use the scientific method and possess the scientific attitude, which means that they work within a framework of methodological naturalism no matter what their religious beliefs may be. About 40% of real scientists believe in a supernatural, personal deity, but they don’t conduct their scientific inquiries within a framework of supernaturalism as do the ICR Creation “scientists.” ICR claims that its staff members keep their Biblical beliefs separate from their scientific beliefs, but that’s nonsense. All of their classes and literature are Bible-based and stress their Literalist doctrine of Young Earth Creationism. Real scientists propose hypotheses that can be tested using empirical and logical methods — that’s the basis of methodological naturalism — and Creationism by a supernatural Deity ultimately cannot be tested in this fashion. Of course, many proximate claims of the Creationists can be tested, such as the 10,000 years age of the Earth, a universal global flood, the lack of transitional fossils, macroevolution does not occur, etc. Fortunately for us, these claims have all been tested and they have all failed, since the claims were all based on specious reasoning and misinterpreted evidence, which has been amply documented in the anti-Creationist literature.

So the ship of fools sails on, low in the water, undaunted by the fact it’s been hulled beneath the waterline and the pumps are failing. My letter to the Statesman has been sent, and I sure hope it pisses off some ICRbot if it appears. I suppose one could admire the tenacity of creationists like them, were it not for the fact it’s the same tenacity of, say, some kook who’s taken to stalking a woman. There’s a time to get the message, and to realize no means no, and you’ve been out of the running for a long long time. Creationism is well past that point, and I think they’re going to find further efforts at pursuing their pseudoscience and pseudomartyrdom received by even more disdain and ridicule than they’re already getting.

Blasphemy is, as they say, a victimless crime

Over in the UK, the population may be predominately non-religious, or at least indifferent to religion, in stark opposition to the way Americans can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. But it’s only been this week that the House of Lords* voted to strike down the nation’s laws against blasphemy. Nice of them to recognize it isn’t 1437 any more. Unless you’ve got a fascistic, Talibanoid theocracy going on, having blasphemy laws in a modern enlightened culture is like attaching a carburetor to your pyjamas: pointless and utterly silly.

Of course, some people are upset at learning the Middle Ages ended long ago.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O’Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O’Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Huh. I thought blasphemy was defined as making insulting or disrespectful remarks critical of gods, not their followers. As far as hate crimes against the religious are concerned, the UK has its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a piece of legislation that makes it an offense to incite deliberate violence and hatred towards a person or group of people based on their race or creed. (I know it’s a law that feels problematic from a free speech standpoint, but the wording of it does try to make it clear that it’s only an offense when there’s clear intent to incite harm. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before it’s actually put to the test in the courts. After all, where’s the line between saying something like “Somebody ought to do something about those damn [insert minority here],” and “Kill the [minority]!”?)

One gets the impression that Baroness O’Cathain is merely troubled by the idea of anyone’s criticizing belief at all. As Tracie pointed out a couple of posts ago, it can be awfully hard for atheists to engage Christians in conversation about belief, simply because the minute you make one statement that’s even the tiniest bit snarky (like comparing their god belief to unicorn belief), many of them are so thin-skinned they’ll storm off in a huff right there. Not surprisingly, Dawkins and The God Delusion came up quite a bit in the House debates. The simple fact that atheist books exist, and are actually finding an audience, is enough for some Christians to think they’re suffering “a torrent of abuse.”

Well, let’s talk abuse. What about the people in the past who were actually the targets of the blasphemy laws in question? Ol’ Wikipedia tells me that the last guy to be prosecuted under the laws was John William Gott in 1921, who was sentenced to nine months’ hard labor simply for publishing pamphlets making fun of Christianity and Jesus. So Christians got their knickers in a twist because Gott snarked on their imaginary friend, and he got nine months breaking rocks. Call me crazy, but I consider that pretty damn torrential abuse. “Hey,” you might say, “that was 87 years ago.” Yeah, but I’m sure it still sucked for him.

Anyway, it was clearly time to get rid of the laws, because they were irrelevant and never used anyway. And as for Christian fears of persecution, again, I never cease to be amazed at these. Check your Yellow Pages and see how many pages it takes to list the churches in your city. Go to any bookstore in the US, and see how many shelves are swallowed up by the Religion category. Only Borders that I know of delineates a section to “Atheism and Agnosticism” within that category, and that section usually only amounts to about two or three shelves, as opposed to the fifty or so shelves devoted to Bibles, apologetics, and the usual twaddle from fundies like LaHaye and Strobel and Colson and their camp. But to many Christians, those two shelves for atheism are two too many, and amount to a horrifying all-out assault on their precious faith.

Cry me a river.


* I had to note my favorite comment about this on Richard Dawkins’ site:

Dear Britain, what the hell is a “house of lords”?? Signed, the 21st century.

You don’t take me seriously, but I’m disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT’S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I’m not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.

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.

Shalini in some kind of trouble?

Shalini Sehkar, whose blog Scientia Natura is full of hilariously foul-mouthed rants against “theistards” (she certainly embraces the “bad cop” role in atheist blogging with gusto), has been locked out — see for yourself — and some commenters over at Larry Moran’s Sandwalk are indicating that some theists have allegedly gone off the deep end at last and are doing things to make her life miserable. As always, the lack of details being offered means the rumor mill is going to be churning overtime, and it would be nice to nip that in the bud if possible. So if anyone knows any real details (of the kind that can actually be spoken of, in the likelihood there are legal issues in play here), and how we can help her out if possible, please let us know.

“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.)

Westboro scum slapped with $11 million judgment

Filthpig Fred Phelps and his gang of funeral-picketing ghouls have been ordered to pay the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, killed in Iraq, nearly $11 million in damages as a result of a lawsuit brought by the slain veteran’s father.

Naturally, they will appeal, as the judge in the case fully (and, one assumes, cheerfully) admits that the award “far exceeds the net worth of the defendants.” Hell, that would be the case if Snyder’s family had been awarded a sack full of cat turds. Still, there are two ways to deal with Phelps and his disciples, it seems. Either walk up to them when they’re at their next picket and shoot each of them in the head (which, I suspect, would be frowned upon as overdoing it even by everyone who doesn’t like them), or keep bleeding them white with these suits until they can’t even afford to keep a vehicle to drive them all to their latest hate rally. Yeah yeah, free speech, whatever. If it’s their free speech to be dispicable swine, then I say it’s everyone else’s to counter them however they see fit. Remember, this kind of thing — hate speech, I mean — doesn’t so much take place in a “marketplace” of ideas as in a boxing ring. Phelps is free to don his gloves and jump in for a few rounds. But he shouldn’t snivel and whine if he gets TKO’d.

Let’s hope the appellate court has the decency to uphold the award, and isn’t swayed by the “but it’s our religion!” argument to rationalize antisocial behavior intentionally designed to inflict pain and suffering.

An ig-Nobel fellow, but one to be censured, not censored

By now many of you have heard or read about how the distressingly-zombielike Nobel laureate/DNA co-discoverer James Watson made an ass of himself by publicly opining on the supposed intellectual inferiority of black Africans. This led to worldwide condemnation, the cancellation of at least one sold-out speaking engagement, and now the termination of his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Now, Watson has actually gone and made things worse by trying to apologize, but doing so in the most intelligence-insulting way possible. (Perhaps he thought the hundreds of millions of black people he offended would be too dumb to notice.)

“To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief,” he said.

Watson has just one little problem here. His original remark is on record and still very fresh, and so it’s going to be a little hard for him to sell the whole “I didn’t mean to say black people were stupid when I said they were stupid” pitch.

The question which will arise now is: Is the inevitable piling-on going to go too far? PZ Myers has already weighed in on Watson’s getting the heave-ho from Cold Spring, pointing out that “it’s a declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly).” The case is similar to the Don Imus firing, back when he made racist jokes about that African-American girls’ sports team. That speech can and will be offensive is a fact of life, but should those who engage in offensive speech be automatically stamped with “pariah” on their foreheads and sent to the bleachers for good, no longer to participate in public discourse? Or should their asinine views be aired openly, the better to thus engage them?

Goodness knows, I’ve inveighed here against neocons and Christian conservatives who say stupid things, and have not been shy about being inflammatory myself in castigating them. Most recently, Ann Coulter’s anti-Semitic ravings. But as loathsome as I find Coulter or Rush or Falwell (well, okay, we don’t have him to kick around any more) or Robertson, I’d never want to see them barred from public speaking. Free speech, like free anything, is a two-edged sword. You cannot have a culture that nurtures and develops the highest and most noble ideas without the freedom that also allows for the most pathetic ignorance and arrogance. And as Watson’s case reminds us, it’s not always necessarily the religious fanatics, or the Coulters of the world, who lose their marbles (not to mention their fundamental human decency) and shoot off their mouths without first loading their brains.

So yes, we have to put up with racism, and anti-science, and religious fanaticism and intolerance, because that’s the price we pay for the privilege of living in a freethinking society where we can openly critique those ideas and, with luck, educate people away from them. Yes, Watson has become a senile old asshat. But even in his intellectual decline, maybe he can still teach people something.