A Tale of Three Communities

I live a pretty sheltered life. The geoblogosphere has been welcoming for women, at least that I’ve seen: I never worry about my competence being questioned because I’ve got lady bits, I don’t see women pushed to the margins, I don’t have to worry about running up against unexpected sexism. Even when talk strays from rocks to other things, I haven’t seen bad behavior. It probably exists somewhere – any diverse gathering of people collected around a common theme is bound to include a few not-so-desirables. But the part of the geoblogosphere I hang out in has been a very safe space, a fantastic community, and people have been just as outstanding in meatspace as they are online.

Then I moved to FreethoughtBlogs, and I was a bit worried: I knew most of the bloggers, and knew they were good people, but I thought we might attract some mega-assholes. And we do. The thing is, between the vast majority of the bloggers and the regulars, we stamp that shit out pretty quickly. Not in our backyard. You want to treat women and other minorities like utter shit, you’d best go elsewhere. Stick around here, and you will be a hurting unit. I’ve watched the goings-on at Almost Diamonds, Butterflies & Wheels, Greta Christina’s Blog, Lousy Canuck, and Pharyngula, in particular. I’ve seen what happens to people who try to use certain slurs. Gendered slurs, abelist language, digs at someone’s sexual orientation, racism – not tolerated.

Those are the spaces I spend my time in. They’re safe spaces. They’re spaces where being a woman and a rape survivor is no problem, where I don’t have to wonder what sort of jackasses I’m associating with, because jackasses are told to conform their behavior to civilized standards or get the fuck out. I like that in a place.

Then there are other places, where admins think it’s clever to post rape threats thinly disguised as jokes, and where the commentariat gleefully jumps in, trying to top each other in the rape “humor” category, where those protesting get screamed down.

So let me sum up that story, for those who don’t want to wade through 1,300+ comments: a dudebro named “Pappa” wanted to know if it was moral to rape Skepchicks for being annoying. PZ called him out. Pharyngulites explained in great detail, with a number of survivor’s stories (this, in particular, is one you should read, and its encore), why “joking” about the morality of corrective rape is inexcusable. One of Pappa’s valiant defenders jumped in to assure us what a wonderful nice guy Pappa was, even though he’d squigged out his own wife. A few folks did some tallies, and found the comments at Rationalia overwhelmingly in favor of contributing to rape culture with such “jokes.” And Pappa doubled down, then added a little anal rape for spice. Then he dropped by to mansplain that he totes isn’t a misogynist because, look, he posted a “stop rape” thingy on Facebook! (Mind you, he’d already told us internet activism don’t count.) But his rape threat was just free speech, and also a joke, and if we can’t joke about rape, we can’t joke about any other critical joke material like dead babies. He has apparently never learned a) the basics of humor and b) that misogyny is as misogyny does. It wasn’t until several of the women at Rationalia, Gallstones in particular, got viciously attacked for daring to disagree that rape is teh funneh, that Pappa sorta-kinda apologized, although it took him a lot longer to come up with something approaching a genuine apology. The survivor’s stories (and, perhaps, realizing he was a teenager’s very first rape threat) had finally gotten through.

It’s one of the better apologies to arise from such debacles, and I do commend Pappa for making it. It’s hard to dig out of an entrenched position. It’s hard to admit, in the heat of battle, that you were a complete fuckhead and in the wrong. He managed it. That gives me some hope for his humanity.

But he’s got a long way to go.

He hasn’t, to my knowledge, begun to do anything to change the tenor of the community he’s an admin for. Mind you, they hid that thread the instant they realized just what a public spectacle they were making of themselves (rape jokes are ever so much more fun when decent people can’t see you beating up on rape survivors, eh?). I can’t see current goings on. But as of the last report, it seems that community is still full of people engaging in gleeful glorification of rape culture.

And, Pappa? It’s time for you to step up. Take this opportunity to examine your privilege. You now know why (most) rape jokes aren’t funny, and are actually veiled threats. You understand the limits of free speech, and have learned (I hope it’s a lasting lesson) that free speech comes with responsibility. You’ve learned that there are real people behind those faceless “skepchicks” you’ve threatened to rape, and real people looking on, and that those people can take real damage from words. You’ve been introduced to the reality of rape culture, and given resources to understand why your “jokes” help enable it.

You need to clean up your community now. You need to make it a safe space for those survivors who got attacked for explaining that rape threats thinly disguised as jokes should not be things decent human beings engage in. You need to stop allowing that merry band of fuckheads free rein to carry on rape culture. You have a responsibility for stopping it.

Each and every one of us who claims to be against sexual assault, who believes they are against discrimination, needs to engage in that cleanup operation. Even those of us who inhabit the safe spaces need to step up. Society, my friends, is not a safe space. Pretty fucking far from it. And we are, at times, part of the problem.

It’s sometimes going to mean confronting dark things about ourselves. It might mean sacrificing a few jokes in our repertoires. It might mean having to consciously consider our actions, and practice doing things differently until it becomes second nature. It means having to swallow our pride, really listen to the people affected by our bad behavior, and apologize sincerely, sometimes.

It means educating ourselves.

It means educating our friends.

It means nothing less than changing society. There’s a fuck of a lot of change needs to happen. It starts with us.

Two of the communities I’ve talked about have already done that hard work. It’s an ongoing project, and one of them takes immense amounts of shit for doing the work at all, but I can tell you as a rape survivor and a woman that it’s damned necessary to do it despite the outraged cries of the privileged. Rape culture isn’t funny. Neither is a society in which women, LGBTQ folk, people of color, and other disadvantaged are constantly dismissed, threatened, disrespected, and treated to threats thinly disguised as jokes.

About damned time we stopped fucking tolerating it.

 

(Standard reminder for posts on sensitive subjects: First-time comments go automatically to moderation. Due to the vagaries of work and sleep, they may not be released immediately. Swearing and disagreement are fine, but keep it within bounds. Gendered epithets, misogyny, abuse of other commenters, and other misbehavior won’t be tolerated. You might wish to review the cantina’s comment policy before you comment. There are also ground rules for this discussion here.)

On Tides, Visibility, and Quiet Revolutionary Acts

There was a time, back when I first began seriously aiming at a life as an author, that I thought I’d have to select a pseudonym. Well, I knew I’d have to – writing under my birth name would lead to far too much potential violence, and it is never good PR for a writer to thump readers over the head with their latest bestseller during signings. Any of you who have last names that inspire tired old jokes repeated as if they were a comedy revolution will know exactly what I mean.

But that wasn’t the main reason why I planned to change my name. Nor was it the fact one of my characters had filched my first name and refused to give it back.

I’m a woman. This is why I felt I had to use a pseudonym.

And it wasn’t a mere matter of safety. Yes, I considered the problem of stalkers. I thought about identity theft. Both of those could happen even if I didn’t achieve fame and fortune. But the main consideration for quite some time was the fact that women don’t get taken as seriously as men. An author with an obviously female name had a harder path to publication, and if published, had a fight getting her work recognized, because, y’know, girl. I don’t remember where I picked up that knowledge. But outside of the romance section, the vast majority of authors were men. The vast majority of awards went to men. A dismissive attitude toward female authors prevailed in most circles I traveled in. And gawds forbid a woman should ever write SF about women’s issues. Strong female characters, great! Strong female authors, not so much, although a few were waved around as if to ward off charges of sexism.

And lest you think these are ridiculous concerns, I invite you to peruse these pie charts. You’ll note that for the majority of book reviews, the pie is overwhelmingly male. In 2011.

So, I thought, it would be best to write under initials. I went through a lot of two-initials-plus-cool-last-name combos. I’d be all secretive, I thought, like George Elliot. I’d not have author photos. My book would rise or stand on its own merits, and by the time people figured out I was a girl (eww!), I’d have already won ‘em over with my deathless prose, so it would be all right.

Over time, though, this began to seem like an idiotic thing to do. I ended up reading some books by obvious women and liked them. My friends liked them. Hell, Connie Willis won Hugos and Nebulas left and right, and she made no effort to hide the fact she was female. By then, I’d chosen my pen name (the name which you know me by, dear readers), but I’d still been determined to keep some things on the QT. No author photos, no trumpeting the fact I’m female. After encountering astonishingly good women writing SF, like Connie Willis and Octavia E. Butler and Patricia A. McKillip, I started feeling a little feisty about it. Gods damn it, why shouldn’t I be proud to be a woman? How the fuck were women going to get any respect as authors if they kept hiding behind ambiguous (or downright masculine) ‘nyms and avoiding anything that so much as hinted at their gender? Fuck ambiguity. I’d plaster my picture all over the back cover and come out roaring, “I am woman! See me kick SF arse!”

Now, plastering my picture all over the back covers of my books will have to wait for, y’know, actually finishing and publishing some, but you may have noticed that I don’t hide my gender round here. I am a woman, damn it. I may not always enjoy it (once per month, on average). But I’m no longer worried about it. I’m no longer eager to hide it. I am even proud to be a woman.

Actually, let me walk that back: I feel silly being proud of an accident of birth. It’s like being proud I’ve got toes.

I’m proud to be the kind of woman who has decided it’s no longer worth hiding behind plausible deniability, who has instead decided to give the old boys’ club either the finger or the two-fingered salute, depending on how Anglophile I’m feeling at the moment. I’m proud to be among the women who are writing as women, who are taking the broader culture by the collar, giving it a gentle but insistent shake, and saying, “Pay attention. No, my eyes are up here. And if you dismiss this excellent tome for the mere fact it was written by a female, I will be sorely tempted to thump you over the head with it.”

(Fortunately for them, my moral code doesn’t allow me to do that any other way than metaphorically, but from the way some people howl when you mention that it would be awfully nice if people treated women more like people, you’d think I’d literally just dropped J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel on their noggins. In hardcover.)

The point of this rant, which is rather longer than I intended it, is to say this: that women doing nothing more than being visibly female whilst also being awesome shook me out of a culturally-induced distaste for my own gender. That’s it. That’s all it took. Before I was ready to listen to the feminists, before I’d learned the first fucking thing about activism and social justice, these visible women made me realize being a woman was actually okay, and that challenging an inherently unfair system was a damned good idea. They made me realize I didn’t have to go to any great lengths to do it, either: being out and awesome is part of the battle. Being unapologetic about who and what you are can be a revolutionary act.

I bring this up because one of my favorite people in the universe, Ryan Brown, wrote a post called On Being a Gay Scientist and Finding a Sense of Community, in which he discusses being at an event for a GLBT organization and having one of those moments where you realize that you’re maybe not as involved in the cause as you feel you should be.

Part of me feels a sense of responsibility to speak up and make it clear that there are GLBT within the ranks of science and academia. After all, it was someone else’s speaking up that made my life as a gay male easier. Do I not have a responsibility to pay the same debt forward for the future generation? And how do I approach that without labeling myself in terms of my sexuality?

That’s the same dilemma many of us who are members of disadvantaged groups face. We don’t want to be labeled as a woman/atheist/LGBTQ/black/[insert other minority here] scientist or writer or what have you. But hiding, denying what we are, does no one any good. Do we have to become enormously outspoken? Become activists? When we don’t necessarily feel drawn to a cause, but know that cause has helped us, what do we do to further it?

Ryan’s hit on one way: don’t hide. Be visible. You don’t have to shout, “HEY EVERYBODY, I’M A [insert minority here] SCIENTIST [or other profession]!!!” but simply be visible. I’m a writer and a woman. Ryan’s a scientist and gay. We’re here, we exist, we’re part of a group of people who are doing outstanding work and are [insert minority here]. We may engage in some activism here and there. We will sometimes talk about what it’s like to be this and that. But our work is not solely defined by our respective genders and sexualities. And as more people become visible, being gay and a scientist, or a woman and a writer, will be no longer seem so exotic.

By not hiding, by unequivocally being what we are and what we do, we’re creating a climate in which other people can imagine themselves achieving their dreams, without having to hide a fundamental aspect of themselves.

Anderson Cooper has realized that. As he said in advising the world at large that he is, in fact, gay,

It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something – something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.

The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.

I love that. And he’s right.

As more of us stand up apologetically and say that the fact is, we are x, and we are proud of it, we change society. We provide role models for those folks who are x and afraid that means they will never be able to follow their dreams while remaining true to themselves. We get society used to the fact that x exists, and can be all sorts of things, and be successful, respected, and happy doing them. Eventually, x may even become as unexceptional as saying, “I am a scientist, and I also run 10k races.”

But we will never get there by staying silent. Some of us will engage in a fair amount of shouting, because society can be a little hard of hearing. But those people who stand up and say in perfectly ordinary voices, “I’m x, by the way,” before wandering off to follow their passions are also helping make our voices heard.

You want to pay it forward and help the tide advance? There are many ways*. One is to be who you are, visible and proud.

Moi and Ryan in downtown Seattle, with Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains behind us. Revolutionaries! Note the bow tie. Bow ties are cool. Image courtesy Robert.

 

*I don’t mean this post to condemn those who have good reasons for keeping to the shadows. If you have to keep your head down for reasons of safety or family or what have you, there are still ways you can support those who are fighting for you. Vote. Donate. Find other means of being a quiet revolutionary until you can emerge. Small actions add up.

A Brief History of Speaking Out on ETEV

I’ve spent the past few days immersed in the latest furor over sexism in the atheist and skeptical communities. I haven’t yet read the transcripts for “The Great Penis Debate,” but I’ve read quite a bit else, including many comment threads, and I’m still amazed by the sheer volume of the screeching resulting from something so simple as saying, “Hey, this community can do better than background levels of harassment at conventions – why not encourage conventions to have harassment policies?”

The resulting backlash has sounded much like what happens when you take a toy away from a toddler – only the tantrum is combined with rape “jokes” and other unsavory vitriol. It’s amazing for its sheer volume. It appears the idea that people should be able to enjoy conferences without worrying about harassment, and that policies should be in place for dealing with harassment when and if it happens, will always be controversial to a certain subset of people. Whether those people are spectacularly clueless, despicable, hopelessly contrarian, or combinations of the three is left as an exercise to the reader.

I’ll be addressing some of this from my own perspective in the coming weeks. And I hope that those readers who come here for the geology and the birds and the flowers will stay for this conversation, because it’s important. Even if you never intend to attend a convention, it’s important. Even if you think your neck of the woods hasn’t got a problem, it’s important. Even if you think those of us speaking out are just shrill, strident harpies, it’s important – perhaps especially important if you’re trapped in that way of thinking. If you’re one of those women who thinks other women should just toughen the fuck up, this conversation is important.*

If you haven’t been a regular reader for some time, you’ve likely not come across many of my posts on related topics. I’m not one of the bloggers who’s made feminist issues a cornerstone of my blogging, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t important to me. I am a woman who has experienced both sexual violence and unwanted sexual advances, sometimes verging on harassment. I haven’t been through the sheer amount of crap other women have. I haven’t suffered the appalling abuse trans women suffer. But I’ve experienced some of what it means to be female in our society. And I believe we not only can do better, but must.

I am a woman who would like to make this world a better place for women. I believe it will also be a better place for men, and people who don’t quite fit either category, or eschew categories all together. The only humans that will be at all inconvenienced in this better world are the ones who don’t like having to behave in a manner that takes people’s value as human beings rather than conquests into account. I’m not sorry for that subset of people.

I want my friends’ grandkids to look at me like I’m absolutely mad when I tell them there was once a time when not harassing people was ever considered controversial. I’m blogging on a network full of people who are working for that world. I’ve got my little bit to contribute in support of their efforts. I know many of you are, in big ways and small, doing the same.

We can make it happen. Together.

A Brief History:

Subsidizing the Rape Culture

 

*Here are the ground rules for the conversation as it pertains to this blog. There are other places out there where people have been allowed to get away with bad behavior. This is not that place.

If you need to brush up on Feminism 101, this is not the place to get educated. We’re beyond that point. Do your homework, because this isn’t a remedial class. Asking about the basics again and again and again, then sniveling when people don’t spend their time educating the ineducable, has become a favorite derailing tactic of trolls. If you can’t make the effort to get up to speed, you are presumed to be derailing the conversation, and you’re out.

Victim blaming is not acceptable at any time. Don’t even try to engage in it.

Gendered slurs and insults, rape “jokes,” threats, or other such misbehavior will get you banned.

Keep the conversation respectful. You’ll get a warning if you look to be starting a flame war. One warning. Then you’re done.

Read the comment policy for this blog carefully before you comment.

I haven’t had a problem with the comments so far. Everything except for obvious spam (because a billion links to shoe stores is so relevant, right?) and one comment intended for another thread has made it through. The folks who have commented here so far have been fantastic, and I’m proud that this cantina has remained such a civil place through uncivil times. But seeing as how we’re about to get into much more contentious territory, I just want to be clear about expectations to newcomers up front. Anyone thinking those rules are too draconian should anticipate not wasting their time here.

Are we clear? Excellent.

Warning: Fencesitters and Bystanders May Be Affected

At the risk of inviting a miasma of socks, I am going to talk about Womanspace once again. It’s important, and I’ve got a point to make.

There are a couple of open letters that are worth reading. Dr. O’s An open letter to Dr. Rybicki makes a very important point:

Maybe your short story isn’t the biggest issue out there concerning sexism, but it’s the little issues that are frequently the most dangerous. Little slights, which appear innocent enough on the surface, permeate our thoughts and actions without our conscious permission and ultimately DO have consequences, whether we intend for them to or not.

And when your small act of sexism, intentional or otherwise, ends up published in a venue the size of Nature, it has an outsize effect. This is why women and men spoke out. Silence would imply the issue is unimportant. It’s most certainly not. As any scientist who also happens to be a woman whether a culture of sexism harms, and chances are excellent she will tell you it does.

Of course, this wasn’t the worst act of sexism ever perpetrated in the entire history of civilization. And it would have probably died quite quietly if the author had possessed the humility and courage to utter just two words.

I’d have liked it if he had. But he chose to pour gasoline rather than balm, and we all know what happens when someone starts a fire on the internet. I’m not sorry it happened. Many excellent posts came out of it. Nature got put on notice, and so did anyone else who might have thought that a little light sexism was quite all right. Dust-ups like this raise awareness. And I want to talk about why that’s important.

I came across this tweet from Ed Yong after the whole fracas had died down a bit, and it struck me:

@ Ten years ago, I'd have reacted exactly as the "overrreaction" crowd did. These are great teaching examples.
@edyong209
Ed Yong

It struck me because I’ve been that person.

I wanted to make sure I’d understood Ed correctly, so I emailed him. I’m beginning to believe the rumors he’s some sort of android, because he emailed back immediately.

So before I became an active science blogger, I would have reacted to this with all the derailing tropes that are coming to the fore: you’re overreacting, he didn’t *intend* to offend anyone etc etc. Fortunately, I’ve been party to a lot of conversations with intelligent feminists, both female and male, since then, which have changed a lot of my view on gender issues. I’m immensely grateful for that.

In the responses of the “out-of-proportion” camp, I see a belief that always crops up in these debates: that “not-being-sexist” is somehow an easy, default position. Hence: it matters whether or not Rybicki intended to offend, because sexism would be an *active choice* over and above the baseline of not being sexist.

Which is rubbish. Not being sexist is hard. You’re pushing against unconscious biases, cultural norms, historically ingrained turns of speech, and more. Not being sexist requires an act of listening to, and learning from, the reactions of those who speak out against it, even if that may make you uncomfortable. It requires introspection, care, and effort.

Ed Yong, for those not familiar, is not only one of the best science bloggers on the planet and a person I follow on Twitter equally for the knowledge and the hilarity he tweets, he’s also one of those men who actually gets it, who understands what sexism is and does and that it must be fought. There’s a lot more now than there used to be, and it’s not because women shut up when told they’re “overreacting.”

This should sound familiar to any atheist in the crowd. There’s a steady drumbeat of voices urging us to tone it down, don’t rock the boat so hard, stop being so sensitive, etc. forever on and on. I’ve been seeing the same thing with talk about sexism, and I’ll be providing more examples quite soon, because there was a particularly egregious example just today. And it’s rubbish.

I know it’s rubbish because, like Ed, I was once in that camp. I stopped camping over there only because people kept talking. Shouting, sometimes. I’ve been that sneering person. The noisemakers were noisy and annoying and disturbed my peace. I wished they’d shut the fuck up and let me get on with ignoring various issues.

But all those voices eventually got my attention. They broke through the deliberate deafness. It becomes impossible to ignore many voices speaking out. It’s damnably difficult to ignore a variety of viewpoints on the subject. It’s impossible to ignore when someone you respect joins that diversity of voices. Like me, you may, eventually, end up giving those voices a hearing, fair or not. And you may end up changing your mind.

This is uncomfortable at first. None of us necessarily likes rethinking certain of our assumptions. There are issues we may not think are issues or would rather not hear about. And sometimes, the counter-chorus starts. We want the voices to go away. Shut up, or go somewhere they can’t be overheard at the very least. But if they shut up, nothing will ever change.

Some things need to change.

And some things do.

This is what’s so often missed in these furors. I’ve been told I’m wasting time. So have my fellow bloggers, both here at Freethought Blogs and all over the internet. Why are you preaching to the choir? Why waste your breath on people who won’t change their minds?

The secret, dear reader, is that we’re not always trying to reach the unreachable. Oh, it would be nice. If I meet Ed Rybicki several years from now, and he tells me this whole thing got him thinking, and even changed his thinking just a bit, don’t think I won’t buy him a celebratory drink. It would be brilliant if his consciousness got raised, and if all those people so quick to defend him calmed down and realized that no one ever hated Dr. Rybicki as a whole human, but were annoyed by his story and appalled that Nature would give a platform to something that showcased sexist ideas about both women and men. It would be wonderful if everybody realized that unconscious sexism and unintended offense are things worth addressing, and doing something about.

But that’s not who we’re after.

The next Ed Yong may be listening. The next Dana Hunter may be, right at this moment, taking pride in the fact she’s not like those hysterical females, without realizing that those females are not hysterical and, additionally, are watching out for her ass too. The next person whose consciousness is raised on this issue, or any number of other uncomfortable issues folks wish we’d just shut up about, is out there, sitting on a fence or standing by.

That’s why speaking out is important. That’s why we won’t stop.

Rising Up

I’m making an exception to my “no links to HuffPo because they are a repository for woo and wackaloonery that should not be rewarded” because this is important:

Jesse Kornbluth: The Police Riot at Berkeley: If They’ll Beat a Poet Laureate, Will They Kill a Student?

Go read it in its entirety before coming back here. Yes, even if you despise HuffPo as much as I do.

Nicole sent me that link, saying it made her feel sick to her stomach, and all but begging me to blog it. I haven’t said much about the Occupy movement, because there’s not much I feel I can say. I watch the raids roll across my Twitter feed, and I read some posts, and all I can think is that it’s happened before. People who say this isn’t our country, this land of riot cops and pepper spray and brutality, are really saying they don’t want it to be.

This is why the 99% are rising up. And this is what the 1% do when the unwashed masses rebel. They try to crush the resistance.

The thing they never seem to realize is, they’re helping more than hurting.

Every veteran at the protests who ends up in the hospital because of police violence; every raid by riot cops and SWAT teams clearing protesters peacefully engaged in petitioning their government for a redress of grievances; every attempt to keep the media from witnessing these First Amendment violations and state violence; every time passers-by get swept up and attacked by cops for the crime of walking too close to the protests; every time the state responds to its citizens with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, breaking bones and bruising ribs and brutalizing; every time they do these things, they are furthering the cause. They are demonstrating the truth of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is saying. They are making the apathetic and unaware finally care about what’s happening to this country. They are making us angry. They are making us determined. They are uniting us, lighting a fire under us, giving us power.

This has happened before. Remember what they did to the civil rights movement, and the kids protesting Vietnam. This is nothing new.

But state violence didn’t work then. It won’t work now.

If they’d taken the bread-and-circuses route, treated the OWS folks with at least superficial respect, made some empty promises and some cosmetic changes, they could have murdered the movement at birth. But they chose to dismiss the people’s concerns, ridicule and then attack them. They chose to enrage rather than engage.

They’ll have to live with the consequences.

People can only be pushed so far. They can’t be milked for absolutely everything they’re worth without kicking over the can and taking over the farm. The oligarchs and their lackeys think they can raise tuition 81% to pay for lavish bonuses and other inane crap, and then attack the protesting students and teachers, without consequence, but they are wrong.

They can expect people to stay quiet when pushed so far, when physical injury is added to financial injury, but this is because they live in a fantasy world they created. The real world is coming for them. And it doesn’t care about water cannons and sound cannons and other tools of the police state trade. Not anymore. There’s not enough down, and too much up. The oligarchs made the mistake of creating a huge mass of people with nothing left to lose, and showing the rest of us that they’re coming for us next.

This Is What Revolution Looks Like.

And it is brutal, and ugly, but it leads to a finer world.

Because this land of oligarchs and raids and brutality, corruption and despair, isn’t the country we want. And we will take it in a new direction.

The more they try to stop us, the easier it becomes.

We are rising up. We will not be put down.

Support the Secular Student Alliance

It’s this easy:

1. Like the SSA Facebook page. You do not need to be a student to do this, you need only support our cause.
2. Upvote the reddit article to push back against all the Christian down votes.
3. Become a member of the SSA ($35/year, $10/year for students) and/or donate to the SSA. You do not need to be a student to become a member! The upcoming generation of secular activists requires the support of the previous generation! And you know that we’re a 501(c)(3), so this shiz is straight up tax deductible, homie.
4. Spread the word even further! Tweet about it. Facebook it. G+ it. Shout it from the mountain tops. Get a pic. Do a blog! Tell them the taaaaaaaaaaaaale!

Why should you do some or all of that? Because they make a difference:

The mission of the Secular Student Alliance is to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics. We envision a future in which nontheistic students are respected voices in public discourse and vital partners in the secular movement’s charge against irrationality and dogma.

The Secular Student Alliance is a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit. We work to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country. Our primary goal is to foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values. Though our office is based in Columbus, Ohio and our affiliated campus groups are predominantly in the United States, we do support affiliates around the world.

It’s about time secular students had a voice, don’t you think? They’ve got 18,000+ Likes so far. Campus Crusade for Christ has almost 60,000. Let’s even up those numbers, and show these freethinking kids we’ve got their backs.

We Need to Stop Executing Peoplel

Last night, the state of Georgia executed a man who was very likely innocent. Like PZ, I don’t care whether he was guilty or innocent. I care that my country is one of the few countries in the world that executes people.

From Wikipedia

I used to be a strong death penalty supporter. Some crimes, I thought, could only be adequately punished by death. I didn’t ever believe it acted as a general deterrent, but as former FBI agent John Douglas said in Mindhunter, it surely acts as a specific deterrent: that particular person will never commit a crime again. When you’re talking about serial killers, that seems like an admirable thing.

But we kill too many innocent people. We come close to killing far more, before luck and persistence and the existence of DNA evidence, uncovered by tireless investigators, come to the rescue. Those are the lucky ones. Those are the ones who aren’t denied the chance to prove their innocence. How many other people have gone to their deaths because no DNA evidence existed, or if it did was never found, or if found, never allowed to be presented? We don’t know. And it’s unbearable that we don’t know.

So what about those cases in which evidence of guilt is undeniable? Where we definitely have the right person, and the crimes they committed are horrific?

I still don’t support the death penalty. Not even for them. Oh, I may want them to die, and die horribly; that visceral emotional reaction, that righteous outrage, is certainly there. But a civilized society should restrain itself. All we gain is another dead person, another traumatized family, proof that we aren’t able to rise above bronze age ideas of justice. We engage in violence to punish violence, and make our civilization just that much more violent.

Life in prison, no parole, is enough to keep society safe.

We spend an insane amount of money on killing people. That money would be far better spent on improving the conditions that lead people to violence in the first place. A society that takes care of its vulnerable members has less to fear from them, and so much to gain.

Troy Davis should be the last person to be put to death in this country. We’re the last country in North America to execute people. It’s time we joined Canada and Mexico in recognizing what justice truly is.

Is There a Word for a First World Nation Becoming a Third World Country?

Even when I was a kid, I knew I was lucky. I had a middle-class family in a prosperous country. Sally Fields used to come on the teevee soliciting funds for all those poor, starving kids in other countries where families were lucky if they had a bit of cloth to throw over a stick for a house, and I’d be quite grateful my country wasn’t like that. Poorest kids I knew still had roofs over their heads and got a few good meals a week. And we knew America was the greatest country on earth. Almost everybody wanted to be like us.

I used to feel sorry for those folks who lived in countries that weren’t number one in everything.

Rome used to be great, too, the greatest on earth, and it fell. When I learned about it, I couldn’t imagine it. What would it have been like, to live in a nation that was sliding down to oblivion? Weren’t the people sad, maybe even despairing? Did they know? Did they realize what was happening to them? I didn’t think it would happen to America, not very soon anyway, but I knew it could happen, and I just hoped it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. I loved my country. I wanted the best for it. Selfish reasons, too: I’d never wanted to live in a decayed civilization, amongst the ruins of greatness, without a chance to become anything amazing. It’s really hard to write works of enduring literature when you haven’t got any paper and everybody in your country’s so poor they couldn’t afford to buy your book even if you managed to write it.

Those were my silly childish thoughts. Then I grew up, and for a little while, in the heyday of the ’90s, it looked like America, despite some occasional stumbles, didn’t really have to worry about falling from its perch. We were great, and we’d continue being great. We could certainly be greater. I’d learned about homelessness and grinding poverty, and some of our cities were falling apart, and the Republicans were getting awfully weird, and we spent a fuck of a lot of money on the military while screwing the poor and the public schools, but still. We weren’t doing all that badly.

Then it got worse. And worse. We voted a jackass into office (never mind Florida, it never should’ve been so close anyway). Terrorists slipped through our defenses, and the jackass and his merry band of fuckwits used that as carte blanche to invade the wrong damned country and basically bomb all the brown people they could. They turned this from a nation of laws that didn’t always live up to its rhetoric but at least acted ashamed when it didn’t into a nation that proudly tortured people. And the middle class melted away, and the infrastructure crumbled, and even crazier fuckwits started getting bold enough to dazzle a bunch of flaming morons into voting for them, and here we are today, rubbing shoulders with third-world nationhood.

Seriously. We are.

Take air travel: The United States, the report notes, now has the worst air-traffic congestion on the planet, with one-quarter of flights arriving more than 15 minutes late. One reason is that U.S. air-traffic control still relies on 1950s-era ground radar technology, even as the rest of the world has been shifting to satellite tracking (the FAA has begun the transition to a satellite-based system, though it’s moving slowly and future funding is a big question). According to recent World Economic Forum rankings, even Malaysia and Panama now boast better air infrastructure.

For fuck’s sake.

And check out what came across my Twitter feed only yesterday: we are the only industrialized nation to have a World Heritage Site we can’t be bothered to preserve. Every other country on the list has probably got a plausible excuse: tiny and poor, tiny and war-torn, tiny and trying too hard to deal with extreme natural disasters and religious fuckery and trying to build themselves up to a reasonable standard of living to be much fussed with things like World Heritage Sites. What’s our excuse? We have Republicans who think preserving things like the Everglades takes too much money out of super-rich pockets. We still have gobs and oodles of money, more than enough to pay for things like preserving priceless treasures and repairing that aged infrastructure and ensuring people get an education and health care and have decent jobs, but we’ve elected absolute idiots and let them give all the money to a disgustingly bloated military and greedy asshats who sit on millions and billions of dollars and scream like two year-olds denied a toy when someone tries to extract so much as a penny from their tight fists for the common good.

We’re 37th in the world in health care, or at least we were in 2000 – I shudder to think where we are now, after eight years of Bush and before our inadequate but good-as-we’re-gonna-get-at-this-point new health care law fully kicks in. Square between Costa Rica and Slovenia, we are. Best in the world? Which world? Certainly not the second world – maybe best in the third world, I think we can comfortably claim that, but we’d best not get too comfortable with that idea, because Cuba’s only two rungs below us on that particular ladder.

Oh, and here’s a nifty little fact: the United States of America gets its ass kicked in income equality by the likes of Iran and Nigeria. Oh, yes, we are so great and glorious, we are kicking Haiti’s ass! Eat it, the exactly two developed nations who do worse than we do! USA! USA!

And while we slide down into the scrap-heap of has-been empires, we’ve got Republicans running around beating their chests and screaming we’re the absolute best at everything there ever was. Best at what, exactly? Burning ignorance? Failed leadership? Shitting on science after sending men to the moon? Yeah. Sure. I’ll grant you that. We’re certainly top contenders in those categories.

What pisses me off is that I know we’re better than this. Yes, this country is full of willfully ignorant fucktards intent on launching us back into the dark ages, but we used to keep them on the hopeless fringes of our political system. We didn’t give them the power and authority they needed to run this country into the ground. We made a mistake. And we’re going to have to rectify that, remove the dangerous halfwits from office and never ever let them have power again, if we don’t want to end up on the bottom of the heap.

I don’t want to live in a former first world country, people. Neither do you. And neither does that greedy little shithead on Wall Street, but he could give a rat’s ass considering he’s got the money to move. So it’s up to us.

America deserves better. We’re gonna have to vote smarter and work harder to ensure she climbs back towards the top. And then, once we’ve stopped falling down, we’ve got to help the rest of the world up.

We were a beacon once. We can be that again.

In the Face of Terrorism: Norway, the Myth of a Madman, and a Better Way

Image Source Guardian.co.uk

This man is a terrorist.

Blond, blue-eyed, solidly middle-class, raised and educated in a Western democracy, yes.  He’s far from the al Qaeda foot soldier everyone expected when news of the Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting on Utoya island broke.  Some are calling him Norway’s Timothy McVeigh, and that’s apt: both of them were home-grown terrorists who decided to express their dissatisfaction with their societies by building farms out of fertilizer and parking them in front of government buildings in hopes of maximum mayhem.  But Anders Behring Breivik proved a far more ambitious fanatic.  The fact his body count didn’t exceed McVeigh’s isn’t due to anything more than somewhat poor timing and excellent police work.

This is Norway’s Oklahoma City in more ways than one.  I remember when we all thought the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building must have been bombed by Arab terrorists, back in the early hours before McVeigh got arrested for traffic violations and the truth that even good ol’ American boys could be terrorists fell down upon us.  Norwegians are a bit shocked at themselves for their assumptions, but let’s face facts: most of the people we encounter blowing up selves and others these days are, indeed, Muslim.  A few too many people, especially in my country, made the leap from “could be” to “must be” far too quickly, but the initial suspicion wasn’t completely unfounded.  When Islamist fanatics tell the West repeatedly and often they’re determined to blow our shit up, it’s not silly to think of them when a bomb goes off.


But people like Breivik and McVeigh remind us that terrorism is not the exclusive method of Middle Eastern extremists.  And this is something we must accept.  Even blond, blue-eyed native sons can be terrorists.  When someone engages in mass slaughter for political and religious motives, with the intent of terrorizing society into compliance with their views or destabilizing the government they despise, they have committed acts of terrorism, no matter how white and Christian they are.  This is something some people seem to forget, the moment the suspect turns out to have a pale complexion.  People stop using the word “terrorist” and start using words like “madman” and “mass murderer” instead.  The terrorist goes from being a terrorist to some lone weirdo who must be an anomaly.


Breivik is not.  Breivik is a cold, calculating, far-right son of a bitch who hasn’t a trace of remorse.  He is a man with a cause who planned his act of terror carefully.  He was as driven by ideology as any other political terrorist, and to call him delusional or insane is an insult to people with genuine mental illnesses.  He’s a product of right-wing ideology, not mental disease or defect.

We need to get over this tendency to think that our native sons and daughters are nuts when they adhere to home-grown extremist ideologies.  When their ideologies lead them to commit stunning acts of terror, we need to stop comforting ourselves by thinking they must be aberrations.  They belong in the same category as other people we call terrorists.  Terrorism is not merely a foreign phenomenon.  Terrorism is a method any extremist can use, and native extremists do.  It’s just that, with a few spectacular exceptions, our home-grown extremists haven’t been quite as good at it.  That, unfortunately, could easily change.  And we won’t be prepared to handle them if we insist on seeing our very own terrorists as something qualitatively different from other sorts.

What Breivik has reminded us is that terrorists can and do arise even in the most peaceful, progressive societies.  Wherever there are politically disaffected people with a martyr complex and the belief that violence will serve them where the ballot box has not, you’re at risk of having some despicable shits load up on bombs and bullets and attempt to change the political landscape by force. 

What can a society do, in the face of that?

Norway appears headed in the right direction.  So far, their people and their leaders have understood that the answer to terror is to not be terrorized.  They’re standing strong on their values and their democracy.  They’re not leaping immediately to create a national security or police state.  This has pushed them in the opposite direction from what Breivik seems to have intended, and that’s exactly the right response.  You won’t get terrorists to stop terrorizing by letting their attacks succeed.  All you’ll do is help them destroy your cherished society.  You may not remake it in the image they intended, but by giving in to the terror, by letting fear strangle your freedoms, you’ve handed them a win.  That’s not the way to go, and I’m glad to see Norway understands that.

What can a society do, in the face of terror?  Do what Norway is doing: catch the terrorist(s) who did it.  The fact that they took this terrorist alive, right in the middle of his shooting spree, is outstanding.  That denied him martyrdom, which takes a lot of wind from his sails and gives those desiring a glorious death for the cause something to think about, should they decide to attempt an act of terror themselves.  It also makes it much less likely that there will be further terrorist attacks undertaken as acts of revenge.

You might notice Norway hasn’t shipped Breivik off to some military installation to be tortured.  They’re using no “enhanced interrogation.”  He’s being afforded due process.  Under Norwegian law, it appears he’ll even have a chance at freedom in 21 years.  Never mind that his chances are about equal to Charlie Manson’s.  The point is that the criminal justice system is handling him just fine, without going to extremes, staying within the boundaries set by an extremely civilized society, up to and including affording him proper representation, and yet they are perfectly confident that society has nothing more to fear from this murderous piece of shit.  They’re completely right.  Democracies do not have to adopt totalitarian tactics to handle terrorists.  They should not.  Doing what my own country is doing – suspending constitutional rights, eroding civil liberties in the name of “security,” destroying i
ts moral authority by engaging in torture – doesn’t lead to a safer society, but one in which the terrorists, both home-grown and foreign, have all but won.

We have to accept the fact that we’re never going to be perfectly safe.  Even if we completely closed our beautiful open societies, even if we crushed dissenting voices, arrested people for showing the slightest tendency toward ideas that sometimes lead to violence, even if we turned every building into a bunker and strip-searched every citizen several times a day, we’d still be at risk from people who hold extreme beliefs and aren’t afraid to risk their lives in order to kill for their cause.  Better, then, to live in freedom.  We can take precautions, harden targets and give law enforcement the tools they need to mitigate our risks and deal with those terrorist acts we couldn’t prevent, without destroying our civil liberties and our democracies.  But let’s not make the mistake of living in terror.  Let’s accept that there are risk inherent in any type of society, and some risks are more acceptable than others.  I’d rather risk getting killed by an extremist than live under a dictatorship in the name of security.  I’d rather risk dissenting voices that might get out of hand than silence all but the most bland.

I’d rather not fight terrorism with bigger guns, escalating the violence and spiraling us off into endless conflict.  I’d rather fight Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s way:

At a press conference in Oslo, Stoltenberg, pictured, said that those guilty for the atrocities would be brought to justice and that the attacks would bring “more openess and more democracy” to the country.

“No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us away from being Norway,” Stoltenberg said.

“You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world,” he added.

I wish my own country had followed Norway’s lead, rather than letting fear all but destroy everything that made her great.

All of us, every single democracy faced with terrorism both native and foreign, can do better.  We must recognize terrorism for what it is, no matter who perpetrates it, and deny those terrorists the satisfaction of remaking our great societies into small and fearful ones.  If we don’t, we are lost.

On Terry Pratchett and Escape Routes

This news brought tears to my eyes, because I adore Terry Pratchett and I never ever want the world to be without him:

Three and a half years ago, Terry Pratchett, the beloved author of the Discworld series, announced that he has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Now he’s made an even more startling announcement.

Pratchett, who has campaigned in his native United Kingdom for the right of assisted suicide, has begun the formal process of assisted suicide in Switzerland, one of the few countries in the world to legalize euthanasia. Specifically, this would take place at Dignitas, a clinic that provides qualified doctors and nurses to assist with the patients’ suicides. 

Those of us who read Eric MacDonald’s beautiful blog know Dignitas.  It’s an amazing place, and I’m glad it’s there.  Because people need escape routes.

Which one of us wants to live on beyond hope?  Mind gone, life destroyed beyond recovery, each day one more endless slog of suffering and humiliation?  Very few of us, I’d bet.

And because of Switzerland’s compassionate laws and clinics like Dignitas, Terry Pratchett doesn’t have to.

Does the news he’s planning on ending his life shock and sadden me?  Of course it does.  I’ll miss him terribly.  He’s changed my life in so many ways, given me so many precious memories curled up with a Discworld book.  It hurts to lose him, hurts to know that the series will end far too soon, and that I won’t have a chance to ever shake his hand and say a heartfelt “Thank you.”  But, people, he has Alzheimer’s.  It’s already mauled his ability to write, and it will progress to the point where he can’t write at all.  It will steal his mind away, leaving a shell, and perhaps just enough awareness to know what’s happening.

I am a writer.  I have a damned good imagination, but I can’t imagine many things worse.

And how much worse is it when there’s no way out, no way to choose the moment, no way to cut out those awful bits at the end and go out on a high note?  To live in fear that one day, you’ll wake up and have nearly nothing of you left and know that it will only get worse and yet be forced to live through that nightmare for an unknown length of time?  I can’t speak for Terry, but I can speak for myself: that fear would consume me.  It would poison all the good moments left.  Much better to know there’s an escape route.  Much easier to live those last good days fully and happily when there’s an exit available.  Even if I can’t bring myself to walk through that door – and really, until I’ve got my hand on the handle, how can I know if I’ll have the emotional strength to turn it? – knowing it’s there would be an enormous comfort.

I’ve often said we treat our pets better than people.  We don’t let them linger on in horrible pain, not if we’re good and strong people who can do right by them.  I’ve made more than one trip to the vet with a beloved pet when there was no hope of any more good days, or too few to justify all the bad ones.  I’ve held them as they died.  And it’s hard.  It’s so hard.  But it’s the right thing to do.

Why shouldn’t I be able to do that for my mother, who lives in dread of suffering and dying like her own mother did, mind gone and only a confused, agonized shell lingering on?  Why shouldn’t I be able to choose people to do the same for me?

People have this knee-jerk horror at the idea of someone taking their own life.  They seem to believe no one should have that choice, and they give reasons.  Some, I even agree with.  This isn’t a decision that should ever be made lightly: it needs to be understood that it’s irreversible, and that some things are worth living through for a bit to see if they get better, because they so often do.  This isn’t a decision that should ever be forced on a person.  But there are so many ways to ensure those things are suitably addressed, and they shouldn’t stop us from allowing people who want it an escape route.

As for the other reasons, such as it’s God’s choice and not ours – well, those arguments are invalid.  So are the slippery slope arguments used as camouflage for the religious ones.  We’re not going to see grandmas and grandpas bundled off wholesale just because assisted suicide is legal.  There may be isolated incidents.  You know what?  There already are, and always will be, and demanding a perfect system with no errors is just another way of ensuring the escape route stays blocked off for everyone forever.  So fuck that.

I hope, once those papers are signed, Terry Pratchett can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with living a lot more life before the time comes.  I hope we don’t lose him so soon.  But at least he’s got the escape route open.  No matter when he chooses to go, at least it’s his choice, not the disease and not society.  He won’t be trapped with no way out.

It’s time other people got to have that same choice.

(Eric MacDonald on Pratchett and the Choosing to Die program is well worth reading.)