Movie Friday: Sodom and Gomorrah

Anti-gay agitators like to bring up a particularly monstrous story from the bible (and there are many to choose from) as an example of God’s perfect mercy. They use this story to demonstrate that God is not okay with buttsecks, or really anything that isn’t face-to-face vagina/penis intercourse with the lights off and while a woman is ovulating. Rather than trying to retell it in my own inimitable style, I’ll let The Professor Brothers do it for me (video and audio NSFW):

They kind of leave it as a tease at the end, the way that the tribe gets repopulated. Let’s just say that for the (by my count) third time so far in the book, Yahweh is super pissed off that people do things against his will, but has zero problems whatsoever with incest.

Yahweh also seems to be a bit of a plagiarist, unashamedly ripping off the tragic climax of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and adding an oddly (un?)savoury twist. Just another example of where the Bible seems to encourage completely blind faith over reasonable skepticism or even human decency: surely Lot’s wife (who apparently doesn’t deserve a name) had some friends in town whose fates she was upset about; apparently Yahweh’s not big on compassion either.

So this is the example we’re supposed to hold up – the rigorous moral standard that we poor wretched sinners can’t ever even hope to aspire to, save through the oddly-specific requirements of Jesus. We are to villify gay people (not rapists, incidentally – anti-gay crusaders will specify that the crime wasn’t rape, but secks in teh butt) because they are more evil than a mass murderer that permits drunken incest but whose wrath is so moved by a single moment of doubt that he will transform you into a kitchen condiment?

You are right to laugh.

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So predictable

One of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog was discussing why belief based in science is much better than belief based in religious faith. Even if we were to grant the wildly unsupported and ridiculous assertion that religious narratives and scientific observations are equally accurate methods to describe the way the world came to be, the fact remains that religious narratives are consistently inaccurate when it comes to predicting the future. For all the talk of ‘prophecy’ that is in the Bible, most of it is simply an expression of rudimentary understanding of human nature. If you couch your predictions in vague enough language, everything becomes a ‘fulfilled’ prophecy.

Of course those who do dare to tip-toe outside the safe boundaries of non-specific prognostication and actually put their reputations on the line by selecting a specific date and location for an event are always proved wrong. Predictions of this specific type would actually be useful – being able to, for example, know when a plague or a famine or a natural disaster was going to strike a certain region would be incredibly useful. Assuming for a moment that religious truth picks up where science leaves off, and science isn’t capable of predicting these events, using this other ‘way of knowing’ would be an incredible boon to mankind. We could use the Bible (or Qu’ran or Vedas or whatever you want to use) to predict when this would happen, and then use science to minimize the damage such things would cause.

However, that’s not the case. So instead we get stuff like this:

More than 22 earthquakes struck Italy by noon on Wednesday, as is normal for the quake-prone country but none was the devastating temblor purportedly predicted by a now-dead scientist to strike Rome. Despite efforts by seismologists to debunk the myth of a major Roman quake on May 11, 2011 and stress that quakes can never be predicted, some Romans left town just in case, spurred by rumour-fueled fears that ignore science.

Many storefronts were shuttered, for example, in a neighbourhood of Chinese-owned shops near Rome’s central train station. And an agriculture farm lobby group said a survey of farm-hotels outside the capital indicated some superstitious Romans had headed to the countryside for the day.

Some people I know are superstitious, or believe in horroscopes and the like. Contexually, it is a harmless enough fancy – for the most part they use logic and good sense to make their life decisions. In principle however, these kinds of beliefs can be incredibly destructive. When people begin abandoning their homes and work over a superstition that violates scientific principles it’s not simply something to laugh off. People leaving their jobs means a serious burden to the national economy; people leaving town ties up roads and puts an additional strain on emergency services; the efforts spent trying to disabuse people of a false belief could have been better spent in any number of fields. I’m not saying that people can’t take a day off, but when hundreds do so at the same time for an extremely poor reason, you kind of have to give your head a shake.

When those same people spend millions of dollars to propogate a superstitious belief, you kind of wish you could shake them instead:

Billboards are popping up around the globe, including in major Canadian cities, proclaiming May 21 as Judgment Day. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS mercy,” says one of the mounted signs from Family Radio, a California-based sectarian Christian group that is sending one of its four travelling caravans of believers into Vancouver and Calgary within the next 10 days. Family Radio’s website is blunt in its prediction of Judgment Day and the rolling earthquake that will mark the beginning of the end. “The Bible guarantees it!” the site proclaims, under a passage from the book of Ezekiel, which says “blow the trumpet … warn the people.”

You didn’t misread that – Family Radio (why is every fundagelical group ‘Family’ something – as though only Christians have families?) has determined through some serious Biblical research that the final judgment of all mankind is happening two days from now (or maybe less, depending on when you’re reading this). Oh, and when I say “serious Biblical research”, I mean some random shit that he’s made up:

I remember a few years ago, I was reading an article by a Rastafari preacher in a Bajan newspaper. He was telling people that you shouldn’t eat ice cream, because it sounds like “I scream”, and therefore it meant that your soul is screaming when you eat it.

Year earlier than that, a guy in one of my high school classes used the same ‘logic’ as Harold Camping to demonstrate that Barney the Dinosaur was actually the devil – apparently the letters in BIG PURPLE DINOSAUR, when converted to Roman numerals (substituting ‘V’ for ‘U’, as is the style in Latin), and removing all letters that don’t correspond to numerals, add to “666″. At least when Lee said it, he was joking. The followers of Mr. Camping are selling their homes, quitting their jobs, and basically giving themselves no Plan B. This is seriously disruptive not only to their lives, but to the lives of those that depend on them. The sad part is what will happen to all of these people when the sun rises on May 22nd and nothing’s changed.

If I am moved by a spirit of uncharacteristic generosity, I will grant that religion helps people deal with existential crises by giving them convenient and non-falsifiable answers to complicated questions (by teaching them not to deal with them at all, but whatever). However, when it comes to making claims about the material world, religion can and must be completely ignored as a source of reliable information. Faith is simply one of the remainders that falls out of the long-division of our evolution-crafted mental processes. Just like we can control our urge to defecate on the ground and have sex with teenagers (well… most of us anyway), we can control our urge to believe in ridiculous claims of superstition when it comes to answering the only questions that matter – how are we to live in the world?

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Willfully blind

There is a particularly frustrating argument out there that seems to come out of the liberal tradition, but has been readily adopted by conservatives as well. The argument is that paying attention to a thing is inherently discriminatory. For example, in discussions of race, otherwise well-intentioned people repeatedly make the claim that noticing race is the problem, and that if everyone just ignored it the problem would solve itself. This makes a sort of superficial sense, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The problem is that colour-blindness is a failed idea – failed because there are real disparities that fall along colour lines that aren’t solved by allowing the status quo to perpetuate. Simply ignoring the problem doesn’t lead to a more equal world, and helps create an environment where racism can become more deeply entrenched.

Critics of outspoken atheists often make a similar statement – why not just live and let live? It’s one thing if you don’t believe in a deity, but why do you have to go shouting your disbelief from every rooftop? Why not just let people believe whatever makes them happy? Once again, provided you don’t put any thought into the implications of the statement, then it seems to make sense. However, it neglects the fact that belief is assumed (in our culture) to be normal, and disbelief to be aberrant. It neglects that people make decisions that affect other people based on their beliefs, and those are often very negative. It neglects, most of all, that the truth is important and worth understanding as best we can. The balloon of faith needs to be punctured as many times as possible by the arrows of logic (why are we shooting arrows at a balloon?)

In the backlash of a lot of the anti-bullying campaigns that have cropped up around America and in various other places around the world, we’re hearing another version of this argument pop up as a rejoinder to focusing attention on helping ensure gay kids don’t kill themselves. “We should focus on all bullying, not just gay kids. Straight kids get bullied too – concentrating only on this one group is unfair!” As with the above two examples, this objection makes a kind of superficial sense, so long as you don’t put any thought into what you’re actually saying. First off, there are already lots of anti-bullying campaigns that don’t focus explicitly on straight kids – it’s not as though only gay kids are getting any attention. However, gay kids are far more likely to be targets of bullying and disproportionately represent a suicide risk when compared to straight kids. It’s like saying that providing cancer care is unfair because some other people have heart attacks. When we have a bigger problem, we need to pay more attention.

Beyond the simple reality that anti-gay bullying is a disproportionately larger problem than bullying in general, there are issues that are germane to gay kids that don’t make much sense except in the context of homosexuality. Imagine telling a Pakistani kid that’s catching a lot of racist shit at her school the inspiring story of how Rosa Parks stood up against slavery; the allegorical relationship to her situation is so tenuous as to be essentially useless. Any public health advocate will tell you the importance of balancing general health approaches (clean water, vaccination campaigns, ad campaigns) with targeted health promotion approaches that reach out particularly to high-risk populations. Much can be done when these two approaches are taken in concert, but recognizing a population’s specific needs is not discrimination against the majority.

If I were to speculate on the motives for people making this flawed argument, particularly in the last case, I cannot help but conclude that these people are intentionally being stupid about this issue; refusing to entertain any sort of rational thought on the subject because they’ve already reached their position and are not looking for anything other than confirmation. That is certainly the case in South Africa:

The brutal killing of a South African lesbian activist has been condemned as a hate crime by Human Rights Watch. The US-based group has urged the police to do more to find those responsible for the recent murder and rape of Noxolo Nogwaza.

South African police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi says that the police prioritise violence against women and children but do not look at sexual orientation when carrying out their investigations. “To us, murder is murder, whether somebody is Zulu, English, male or female – we don’t see colour, we don’t see gender,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

If I were to give the police the benefit of the doubt, I would interpret this as them saying “no matter who is killed, we will do our absolute best to solve the crime. We will not work less hard because of the sex or orientation of the victim.” I’m sure that’s what they hoped they were saying. However, the cynic in me can’t help hearing “so a gay person got murdered… people get murdered all the time! Why is she special?” In this case, and in the case of most hate crimes, the effects of the crime reverberate far beyond the simple act of murder – it sends a message to anyone else that would think to step up and advocate for gay South Africans: “this is what happens when you speak out.”

So while I recognize the shallow appeal of the admonition to just “treat everyone the same”, that kind of approach inevitably benefits the status quo at the expense of the minority. We must recognize that different groups may have particular needs, and if we want to achieve ultimate equality we must, at least for a time, swallow a bit of inequality.

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SlutWalk: the missing racial perspective

In my earlier post about SlutWalk, I made reference to a blog post that called the white blindness prevalent in SlutWalk – the complete failure to recognize that slut is not only gendered but racialized as well. There’s a lot of really good stuff in there:

Had SlutWalk organizers considered New Orleans – or perhaps any city in the Northern Hemisphere where undocumented women possess a very real fear that a call to the police for any reason will result in her own deportation – they might have thought twice about sinking so much time and energy into their event. They might have had to listen to women of color, and actually involve them in visioning for what an equitable future would look like. Instead, they decided to celebrate a term not everyone is comfortable even saying.

There is no indication that SlutWalk will even strip the word “slut” from its hateful meaning. The n-word, for example, is still used to dehumanize black folks, regardless of how many black folks use it among themselves. Just moments before BART officer James Mehserle shot Oscar Grant to death in Oakland in 2009, video footage captured officers calling Grant a “bitch ass nigger.” It didn’t matter how many people claimed the n-word as theirs – it still marked the last hateful words Grant heard before a white officer violently killed him.

Whether white supremacist hegemony was SlutWalk’s intent or not is beyond my concern – because it has certainly been so in effect. This event will not stop the criminalization of black women in New Orleans, nor will it stop one woman from being potentially deported after she calls the police subsequent to being raped. SlutWalk completely ignores the way institutional violence is leveled against women of color. The event highlights its origins from a privileged position of relative power, replete with an entitlement of assumed safety that women of color would never even dream of. We do not come from communities in which it feels at all harmless to call ourselves “sluts.” Aside from that, our skin color, not our style of dress, often signifies slut-hood to the white gaze.

A common problem in discussions of minority groups is that it becomes too temptingly easy to focus on your own oppression and ignore the fact that some of your compatriots feel things quite a bit differently. It certainly doesn’t help when you are then accused of “hating” the majority group because you level reasonable criticisms at them (poke through the comments at the bottom of the link for examples of what I mean):

If you want to open space for a new dialogue, you need to take down the “white supremacist” nonsense from your article. This is such BS – you are being an enemy to ANYONE who wants to speak out against rape, regardless of what their color is. Oh, but that’s right, you don’t give a **** if white women get raped. They deserve it, right? Who the he** cares if THEY get raped – is that what you are trying to say?

That’s a direct quote from a race-baiting sock puppet that haunts the comments section.

Over at PoCO, much the same argument is being made:

I thought to myself, after hearing of SlutWalk, about how much language and empowerment is racialized. How would the Mexican-American mothers I know feel about their daughters calling themselves whores? Or the Black mothers of friends react to their daughters calling themselves sluts? Probably not well. Many communities of color have had growing movements against anti-woman language for good reason. For communities of color, even those who aren’t expressly political, there’s a visceral reaction to name-calling aimed at women of color, who are seemingly always the targets of names whose historical, cultural, social and political edge white women will never confront.

From ‘welfare queens‘ to ‘unwed mothers,’ images are almost always racial. As a Latino male, people who look like me (and Black men as well) are often the ones visualized when people think gender oppression. But white supremacy means Caucasians do not, for the most part, need to think about messaging regarding normalcy and deviance, or that people of color, especially women of color, have been subject to these issues all our lives. Historically, the masses of white women have not fought with women of color, but instead sided with white men in exchange for their own freedoms.

These are legitimate criticisms, not dismissals of the event as a whole. The point of such criticism is not to tear down the cause, but to expose some of the hypocrisy and unexplored biases and cognitive hiccups that might (and usually are) otherwise be ignored. Read the criticisms, learn from them, do better next time.

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Special Feature: I participate in SlutWalk Vancouver

This past Sunday, I participated in the local (to Vancouver) SlutWalk event. I have spoken previously about the issues that preceded this event, so if you haven’t heard of it you should probably read that post. I will attempt to summarize: a police officer in Toronto suggested that women who don’t want to get raped probably shouldn’t “dress like a slut”. Giving Constable Sanguinetti the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I’m sure what he was trying to say is that rapists are more likely to target women who are wearing clothes that expose skin than someone dressed in, say, business casual (more on this later). What followed was a backlash against the idea that rape victims are “asking for it” through their dress, as though a woman’s job is to not provoke the ravenous male hordes through improper dress.

Obviously, when put into context, this idea is not only wrong but very dangerous. Women are often blamed for being raped, disbelieved by even their own families and the judicial system. This kind of slut-shaming double standard inherently disadvantages women – “slut” is always a gendered term even when used (subversively) to describe men. Inherent in the word slut is the idea that a woman enjoying her sexuality is dirty and immoral. It is leveled against women irrespective of their level of sexual activity – a girl who sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time (or indeed, who has never done anything sexual) is just as likely to be called a slut by those around her as is a professional sex worker. Neither of them deserves the appellation – the word should never be used.

In this post, I will give some of my reactions to the event.

The Good

1. Attendance

I wasn’t sure how many people would bother to come to an event like this. Keep in mind that it was pouring rain at various points that day (this is Vancouver, after all), but there was a crowd of around 1,000 people (my estimate would have been higher, but that’s what the paper said) there. Some were dressed in a variety of costumes: three men in operatic drag, a woman in a Saran Wrap dress, a young woman in a really uncomfortable-looking corset, a guy wearing a tiny t-shirt and silver bicycle shorts (not a flattering look… they kept slipping down), and my personal favourite: bandana man – so named because that’s all that covered his junk. My response to my friend (who I will call “Julie” just for simplicity’s sake) was “wow, who knew people actually cared about women’s rights?”

2. Who Attended

One would expect that an event like this would be almost entirely women. I was pleasantly surprised at the gender mix: still majority women but with a lot of friends, spouses, boyfriends, and people like me who simply care about the issue there. It is a sad fact of the sexual double-standard that these kinds of issues only seem to gain real traction when men start speaking about them, but at least the Y chromosome camp was well-represented. It certainly surprised a couple of knuckle-draggers who showed up expecting a parade of sluts, and were instead confronted by a group of passionate feminist allies.

3. Support

This was not a fringe event where only a few whackos showed up (although there were a few of those, to be sure). In addition to various legal and social support organizations, the deputy mayor of Vancouver Ellen Woodworth showed up and spoke at the kickoff to the march (“As a lesbian, a queer, a dyke… I know the power that words have”). Media were present, and sponsors had donated materials and time to the event. The Vancouver Police were also on hand to block traffic, which was important because there were a lot of people on the streets.

4. The Reaction

Nothing was more rewarding than seeing people’s faces as the parade moved past. People were shocked to see not only the attire, but the word “SLUT” paraded defiantly and openly through the streets. I said to Julie “that is the face of consciousnesses being raised.”

The Bad

1. Messaging

One of the stated purposes of SlutWalk was to reclaim the word ‘slut’, in order to rob it of its power. Ultimately, I disagreed with this part of the campaign. Like with the word “nigger”, I don’t think that re-appropriating words is a useful endeavour. I am of the opinion that people should be forced to deal with the full history and implication of a word like ‘slut’, and to understand that it is a word that cannot be separated from inherent hatred of women. Once people understand not only where it comes from, but how it is used to silence, shame and victimize women, they won’t want to use it. I have never been the target of the word ‘slut’, and so it is not my place to say that women shouldn’t re-appropriate it; my criticism is of the idea of re-appropriating words in general.

2. Failing to understand the point

I spotted a number of signs saying things like “real men don’t rape” and “don’t tell me how to dress; tell men how not to rape” and “rapists cause rape, not women”. Even one of the organizers went up and said “women don’t need to be reminded not to dress slutty; men need to be reminded that they will go to jail!” While I understand the spirit behind the statement, I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of rape and slut-shaming. Men that rape women do not do so because they want to get laid*. They certainly don’t do it because they “are rapists” any more than people commit crimes because they “are criminals”. Failing to understand this is committing a fundamental attribution error.

Rape is an issue of control and respect. Rape is the result of someone believing that their own wishes supercede the rights of another person, and that the victim deserves her/his treatment for whatever reason. Rape, like all violence against women, is the product of the idea that women do not have the right to sexual self-determination. The word ‘slut’ is a manifestation of that idea. It is the idea that needs to be fought, rather than focussing on “rapists” – as though that was a group in and of itself that must be identified and punished. A man who doesn’t rape because it’s illegal will rape as soon as he thinks he can get away with it. Better to make fewer men that think rape is acceptable.

3. Failing to address the fallacy

There was a particularly powerful moment during the introductory speeches, where one of the organizers said “I am a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and a person deserving of respect.” She then removed her pants, revealing a short sequined skirt, followed by the words “I am still a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and I am still a person deserving of respect.” It was a perfect demonstration of the fact that regardless of a person’s apparel, she/he should be treated as a self-determining individual whose body is her/his own. However, as great as the demonstration was, it skipped over an important point.

While it is difficult to get exact numbers on this (since many sexual assaults go unreported, particularly in places where they are not taken seriously), I hope those of you who are skeptically-minded will allow me to get away with the following assertion: places that have strict dress codes for women do not have lower rates of sexual assault. While it is my suspicion that these places have higher rates of assault, at least we can conclusively state that covering women head to toe does not eliminate the risk of sexual victimization. The fallacy committed by Constable Sanguinetti was not that he was impolitic in his wording, it’s that the original statement is nonsense. The way that women dress is not related to their risk of being raped, at least at a population level.

I am reminded of the old joke about the two hikers that run afoul of a bear. While the first hiker starts running, the second quickly starts putting on his running shoes. “You fool!” calls the first hiker “Those shoes aren’t enough to outrun a bear!” The second hiker says “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.” There is no standard definition or quantitative parameters for what “dressing like a slut” means. It is entirely subjective – the things that are worn by the women I work with would be considered pornographic in many Middle-Eastern countries. The problem is not the clothes; it’s our attitudes towards women and sexuality.

This point was not adequately addressed by the speakers, and I think it was a real missed opportunity.

The Ugly

1. The Racial Double-Standard

Vancouver is a city with a large East- and South-Asian population. Black women and aboriginal women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault (including rape) than are white women. Neither of these facts would have been apparent while looking at the crowd. Like most feminist and social activist causes in North America, SlutWalk Vancouver was attended by white people, organized by white people, and focused on issues that do not include race. One of the speakers was Angela, a woman who works front-line for a victim support service in Vancouver’s downtown East Side (DTES). She began talking about the work that she and her colleagues did while dealing with assault victims, and whenever she talked about defending women from rapists, her every sentence was greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheering.

When Angela pivoted to point out that there is a racial component of the word “slut” that is largely ignored, that women of colour don’t particularly want to take back the word “slut”, that this wasn’t an issue of wearing a little black dress but of not being beaten and subsequently ignored by the legal system, the reaction was far more muted. I think I might have been the only person who cheered.

There is a common theme in the intersection between race and feminism. Feminism is well-tended by white women, and many women of colour recognize that there is a need for shared mutual struggle. However, when issues of race and racism – particularly the fact that PoC are disproportionately affected by sexism – come up, there is significant hesitation to face those head-on. Aura Blogando calls this ‘white supremacy’ – I think that characterization is perhaps a bit strong. I think of it more in terms of “white blindness”, or more familiarily, privilege. White women are very enthusiastic to address those issues that are germane to themselves, but more reluctant (it seems) to bring issues affecting PoCs to the fore except in very tokenistic ways (for example, the organizers of SWV noted correctly that Vancouver is built on unceded Saalish territory, but didn’t say word one about the fact that Aboriginal women are more often the victims of assault).

By completely dismissing, or at least not making a point of raising, the issues associated with race, SlutWalk Vancouver allowed white people to feel good about themselves for standing up to one injustice, without having to deal with the related injustice in which their own (unexplored) attitudes play a role. This criticism should not be interpreted as an indemnification of white people, merely an observation that these issues tend not to become publicly-relevant until they affect the majority (in much the same way as sexism issues don’t get treated seriously until men complain about it too).

So in all of it, the good bad and ugly, I think SlutWalk Vancouver was a success. People from many different walks of life were present to raise consciousness about an issue that I think is very important, and hopefully a conversation will be sparked about not only the word “slut”, but how we think of women in our society in general. I was proud to participate, and look forward to more opportunities to do the same.

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* I will no doubt be criticized for making the generalization that it is only men that rape women, or that only women are raped. I fully recognize that men rape men, and less frequently women rape men or other women. Rapists are not exclusively male, and victims are not exclusively female. I also recognize that transpersons are caught in a tricky gender classification limbo, and are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault and rape than are cispersons. It is not my intention to diminish these cases, and I hope I do not come across as dismissive of this very real issue.

Yeah THIS guy needed to be fired…

Pretend for a moment that you’re the head of a major international organization worth billions of dollars (hey, congratulations!). Unhappily, however, your organization is facing overwhelming international criticism for a series of egregious ethics violations. Some of these violations implicate you personally, but the majority of them refer to the general standards of practice and the organization’s history of secrecy and evading prosecution. As the leader, you have complete and total authority to change the rules and standards of practice of the organization to respond to this criticism – criticism which, incidentally, is severely impacting your bottom line.

Have you got that in your head? Good. Moving on.

Now imagine that you hear that someone in middle management somewhere in the organization has advocated changing a company policy on the grounds that it is both unpopular and unfair. This manager has bypassed the usual chain of command, which is most certainly a violation of the rules. However, in the larger scheme of things he has articulated a position that many of your shareholders advocate and that would certainly go a long way in rehabilitating your international image. What do you do with this manager? Do you call him in for discipline? Do you say that while you respect his right to speak, you disagree with his position and here’s why? Do you use the criticism as an opportunity to change direction and show the public that your antiquated policies can be changed for the better when the times call for them? You’ve got lots of options; which one do you pursue?

If you picked anything other than ‘shitcan his ass’, the congratulations: you are smarter than the Pope:

Pope Benedict XVI has sacked an outspoken Australian bishop who had called on the church to consider ordaining women and married men. The Vatican said in a statement Monday that the pope had “removed from pastoral care” Bishop William Morris of the Toowoomba diocese. That language was unexpectedly strong by Vatican standards. However, no explanation for the move was given.

There are many people that need to be fired in the church (the Pope being chief among them), for doing things that make a person with any sense of humanist morals shudder. It is one thing to know someone who rapes children and not do anything to stop it. That’s pretty bad (even writing that sentence seems ludicrously evil). It is another thing entirely to aid the rapist in covering up his crime, allowing him to repeat it again and again. It is another thing to threaten the victims of your friend’s crime with eternal punishment if they speak out about it. It is another thing to allow all of this (and actively participate in it), whilst simultaneously holding yourself up as an example of morality and ruin the lives of millions of people, sacrificed in the name of your moral posturing.

But yeah… fire the guy who says that women should be allowed to be priests.

The level of evil is almost cartoonish with this organization, and the rabbit hole goes deeper:

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has arrived in Rome for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. An EU travel ban forbids him from visiting member states but the Vatican, where the ceremony will take place, is a sovereign state and not in the EU. Mr Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, has been allowed to transit through Italy. Italy’s foreign ministry said it had requested an exemption from the EU travel ban for Mr Mugabe.

Yep. The gross pig-fucker himself is welcome in the Vatican’s hallowed chambers. A man whose exploits have earned him the just condemnation of the international community for bankrupting his country, attacking political appointments with violence, and repeatedly violating the human rights of his own people… but he’s got a friend in Rome! To the point where government officials have to ask the EU to suspend its own laws so that he can come watch a fraud passed off as miraculous. You’ve got to imagine how uncomfortable that conversation must have been.

EU: Sorry… we must have a bad connection. It sounded like you said you wanted an exemption to allow Robert Mugabe into Europe. Heh heh, but that’s just ridiculous.

Italy: Um… yeah. You got it right. We want Mugabe.

EU: WHY?

Italy: The pope wants him at the beatification of John Paul II

EU: WHY?

Italy: Well the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe, and he’s the leader, so he’s invited

EU: WHY?

Italy: Is there someone else I can talk to?

Some people wonder if the Pope and other religious leaders do not actually believe the things they say, but perpetuate the lie to gain power. It’s certainly a reasonable suspicion, given that the claims religious leaders regularly make are so bizarre and contrary to the basic rules of logic. However, when you look at the actions of these people, it becomes abundantly clear that they really do believe that their deity is speaking directly to them. It’s the only way one could justify such unrelenting and convoluted evil – license from the supernatural.

This is why enshrining ‘faith’ as a virtue is dangerous. People can trick themselves into believe just about anything, especially when they are told by the culture surrounding them that it’s good enough to just believe something, facts be damned. Once you’re willing to completely blind yourself to the effects of your actions by telling yourself that justification for your evil comes from on high, anything is possible. There is some truth to the old adage that ‘faith can move mountains’ – it can move mountains of inconvenient evidence and logic out of the way, so that the believer can commit any crime she/he wants without utterly devastating her/his own self-concept.

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Mixed up

Those of you who have read this blog for a while, or who know me personally, know that I am what is technically known as “mixed race”. Generically, this means that my parents identify as two different ethnic groups. More specifically, my father is black and my mother is white, which according to the racist nomenclature of Jim Crow era America makes me a “mulatto” (a word meaning ‘mule’). At various points in my life, my ‘mixed’ status meant different things to me.

When I was very young, it used to irk me that people in my mostly white home town, who knew I had one white parent, didn’t see me as half-white. After all, technically speaking it was just as true that I was half-white as much as I was half-black. However, nobody else seemed to think along those lines. When I mentioned it to my dad, he imparted to me one of the first lessons I ever had to learn about race: it doesn’t matter what you are, it’s what other people think you are that matters. It affects the way they treat you, the way they think of you, and the way they see you.

I had the opposite experience living in Mississauga, where there were white kids, “really black” kids, and then me. As if I wasn’t enough of an outcast, being a recent transplant to Ontario, not knowing most of the kids I went to school with, and not really having been exposed to other black kids before, I was viewed with deepening suspicion and ultimately kept on the outside. As much as the kids I hung out with (mostly white, as that was who I was used to being around) accepted me, I knew I didn’t fit in. Most of them were Italian, Maltese, or of another Mediterranean extraction.

As a result of my mixed heritage, I never really connected with the black community where I grew up, only able to view it from the outside. Being in a special-ed program that didn’t exactly overflow with black kids didn’t help much either. To this day I wonder whether the system passively discriminated against the black kids – failing to identify them as “gifted” (in the language of the time – who knows what it’s called now?) because of pre-conceived notions of how black kids are supposed to be. I wonder if that’s the case, or if kids that were intelligent enough to qualify weren’t encouraged at home. As for me personally, I had tons of support. That’s neither here nor there, vis a vis this story, I just thought I would big up my home environment.

People of mixed race have been around for as long as there have been distinct racial groups, but as a sociological phenomenon, there has been a marked shift in how kids of my ilk are viewed. First, people no longer call us “half breeds” a term I hated when I was younger – my parents aren’t horses or dogs; they didn’t breed. Furthermore, the idea of someone being “pure” anything is mostly nonsense – everyone is a mutt no matter where they come from. We are called “part _____”, which is a much more flexible descriptor that allows for people who are a mixture of many different things. We’ve gotten over our obsession with fractions.

Secondly, people of mixed heritage are no longer seen as an exotic oddity (at least not to the extent that we were before). Perhaps with the rising prevalence of interethnic marriages, some of the shine is off the penny when it comes to the novelty of identifying with more than one group. Even the census and most other questionnaires that ask about ethnicity use a “check all that apply” rather than forcing people to choose one that applies best.

Last week a white supremacist showed up in the comments section. While I’ve dealt with that type before, there’s always a part of me that gets apprehensive because it raises an old spectre that I don’t like thinking about. That is, if genetics (along racial lines) do influence things like intellect and “personal responsibility”, what does that mean for me? They don’t, of course, but what if they did? Is my interest in science and academic topics the result of my “white” half? Is my love of music and dancing the result of my “black” half? Do traits break down like that? Am I a lucky composite of two complementary characteristics?

I am always able to beat those kinds of introspections back with a little bit of skepticism. Are there not many prominent intelligent black scientists out there? White musicians? Haven’t we learned through history and experience that the reasons that one group does something better than another is simply a product of culture rather than genetics? The stereotypes we paint each other with are just the result of sloppy thinking. Still, it’s always a struggle to have to deal with those fears every day.

Through this blog, I am trying to encourage readers to engage in skeptic thinking when it comes to race. Above and beyond my love of skewering religious topics, if there’s one thing I’d like you to do it’s learn to recognize and challenge the nearly-inaudible voice of cultural indoctrination when it comes to race. We all have embedded assumptions about groups not like our own (or even of those within our own group), and learning how to catch ourselves when we start unconsciously following those assumptions is a useful tool for dealing with each other fairly.

I learned this trick by reflex, living my entire life trying to figure out how I fit in. I don’t have the option to turn it off, nor would I want to if I could. We can find a way to make our unique set of interactions work well if we are just a combination of open-minded, careful and honest. If we can all be “mixed” in this way, we can learn important things about each other, and about ourselves.

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Movie Friday: Black White Supremacist

I had an honest-to-Spaghetti-Monster white supremacist show up on the blog this week. In honour of this auspicious occasion, I couldn’t resist posting this classic bit:

Those of you who read through the comments will probably notice that I didn’t strike back with my usual level of vituperation. Chief among my reasons for not engaging is the fact that the supremacist in question has clearly invested a lot of time in his “scientific racism” – nothing I do will disabuse him of his position. I’ve gone up against people whose positions I didn’t think I would change before, but those times were fun. This time I’m dealing with a person who thinks that I am inferior simply because of the genetic group I belong to… I don’t think I could possibly go down that rabbit hole without losing my shit completely. That’s not fun for me.

Anyway, whether they’re as slick and sciency-sounding as Unamused there, or as cartoonish as Mr. Biggsby, white supremacists are worth nothing but scorn and dismissal.

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Arming the rebels

The recent war/conflict/military police action in Libya has kind of overshadowed the fact that something really important is still happening in the middle east. Shit has seriously got out of control in Syria and Bahrain, and that’s disturbing enough. What is far more disturbing to me is what’s being discussed in Libya. Yes, the rebels are still fighting and NATO forces are becoming progressively more entrenched in what has become a full-blown civil war.

Many commentators in the United States (who you would think should know better than I do) are talking about providing weapons and training to the rebels. While they sorely need it, the USA doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to arming groups of insurgents. For reasons that surpass understanding are completely understandable, those rebel groups tend to use those weapons and that training to kill people that the US wishes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’re Americans.

But there may be other ways that the United States can arm the rebel groups – ways that are far less likely to get someone killed.

US Government invests in activist technology

The United States government is spending millions of dollars developing technology to help pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and China. Washington has begun to open-up about the projects which include a “panic button” that lets protesters wipe their mobile phones if they are arrested. State department official Michael Posner said that the US was investing money “like venture capitalists”. He also revealed that it was providing campaigners with technology training.

It’s hard to understand to those of us that wake up to technologies our grandparents couldn’t have possibly imagined, but there is a significant portion of the world that doesn’t have the kinds of access that we take for granted. That being said, cell phone technology has become pretty much ubiquitous, and with it has come new opportunities. As I’ve outlined as one of the central theses of this blog, the antidote to tyranny is free speech. By providing the ability for anti-government groups to communicate undetected, the United States hopes to keep any future governments from becoming tyrannical.

Who is this good for? As far as I can tell, only the people who live in the countries using the technology. There is no guarantee that this will work in the US’s favour, except insofar as democratic governments tend to be more motivated by trade and the opinions of the international community – both things that the United States can exert quite a bit of influence over. However, it is entirely possible that the technology will be used to overthrow pro-American tyrannical governments (like the one that just left got booted out of Egypt on its own terms after a huge popular revolt).

Sesame Street goes Pashtun

The United States is funding a Pakistani remake of the popular TV children’s show Sesame Street. In a new effort to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, USAID – the development arm of the US government – is donating $20m (£12m) to the country to create a local Urdu version of the show. The project aims to boost education in Pakistan, where many children have no access to regular schooling.

Just as free speech is a poison pill to tyranny, education is a poison pill to religion. The more educated the populace, the more likely they are to question the religious authority that controls them. Encouraging reading means encouraging critical thinking skills, which in turn encourages criticism. The irony is not lost on me that we have the religious establishment in Europe to thank for public education today. Once again, arming the rebels works for the rebels themselves (which would be us), but not so well for those that provide the arms. In the case of providing education to Pakistanis, the United States does indeed stand to benefit. The status quo there… isn’t exactly working out well for them these days.

There can be a benefit to arming those who are enemies of your enemies. However, despite what the cliche would have us believe, the enemy of my enemy may not remain my friend for long. It’s imperative that we take the long view when we provide powerful tools to those who share a common opponent, lest we someday find those same tools arrayed against us. By providing help in the form of non-lethal technology, we can ensure that at least we don’t have those tools fired at our heads. By providing help in the form of education, we can ensure that we find ourselves in a world filled with people who we can at least have a conversation with.

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Tidying up a landfill

Imagine for a moment that your house is built on a garbage dump. Your home constantly reeks of not only the discarded foodstuffs and general refuse of our disposable society, but of the general human neglect that accompanies those places we prefer not to think about. All around you is the funk of abandonment, to the point that it permeates your pores.

In other words, you stink.

Now, imagine someone from outside your home notices your living conditions and clucks disapprovingly. You are not invited to social engagements, and are generally ostracized from polite company. Everywhere you go people turn up their noses and avoid you. Noticing this, you say “I know what the problem is! This garbage dump I live in is untidy!” So you pile all of the rotting compost into an organized heap, rake the dirty diapers into a mound, and arrange the biohazardous waste in an aesthetically-pleasing way that really showcases your savvy as a decorator and landscaper. “There,” you say “that should take care of the problem!”

National Front of France bans skinheads

The new leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, has barred skinheads from the far right’s annual May Day march in Paris. She confirmed for French radio she was banning “trouble-makers” from the first march to be held since she took over from her father Jean-Marie in January. “They draw cameras like flies and naturally we would protect ourselves from such provocations,” she said.

Marine Le Pen has decided that the real problem with her ultra-right wing racial supremacist party is that there’s just too many skinheads around! They’re making all of the bigots in suits look bad! The depressing part of this story is, of course, that her plan appears to be working. As though people don’t really mind racism so much as they don’t like being associated with the ugly parts of it. Your heart almost goes out to those poor bastards – too racist for the ultra right-wing of the political spectrum, and now too ugly to even be seen.

But then I remember that given the chance they’d kick my teeth in and leave me on the side of the road for dead, so my sympathy doesn’t really extend that far.

Orange Country Republicans censures member

A California Republican group censured one of its own Thursday, saying her words and actions since sending an e-mail last month depicting President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee have been potentially offensive, damaging and insincere. Capping a meeting Thursday, the Orange County Republican Party’s executive committee voted 12-2 Thursday to issue an ethics censure against Marilyn Davenport.

Do you want to know how you can tell that you’ve gone way over the line? Like, not just said something questionable or that could be potentially misconstrued, but have left tact and appropriateness deep in the distant past as you bravely rocket forward strapped to a jetpack fueled by pure racism? When you get disowned by The Republican Party for being too racist. That’s like having Mel Gibson take you aside and warn you that you might have a bit of a drinking problem. It’s like Glenn Beck calling you a conspiracy theorist. It’s like Michael Vick leaving you a note of concern about the way you treat your pets.

The Republican party is not necessarily racist, and I think I’ve pointed out this distinction before. There’s nothing egregious in the Republican platform that says “black people are inferior”, but their constant harping on “personal responsibility” as the primary explanatory factor for differences between the haves and the have-nots certainly dovetails nicely with racism. It’s not an accident that every time someone in the news says something ridiculously racist, it’s always a Republican. Republican political philosophy isn’t overtly racist, but it does ‘provide aid and comfort’ to racists. Conservatives hate hearing this - nobody likes being called racist. Most conservatives wouldn’t consider themselves to be racist, and under particular definitions of the concept they aren’t. However, there seems to be a great reluctance among conservatives to try and parse out why the racists always seem to come from their camp, and so much more rarely from ours.

It is a rhetorically unfortunate fact that both of the people mentioned in this post are female, because the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig” takes on a sexist connotation. My intent is merely to point out that no matter how much you try and ‘beautify’ something, it is still as fundamentally ugly as it was before you started (although I don’t personally find pigs that ugly). Trying to gloss over – I intentionally avoid the word ‘whitewash’ – the problem by tidying up the landfill that is your political position isn’t going to fix the underlying issues. If you think racism is a problem, if you think that your spotlight is too often taken up having to apologize for and distance yourself from those who are your allies but who say bigoted things, then you have to really look hard at why they feel at home in your house.

People aren’t shunning you because your dump is unkempt; it’s because you stink.

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