Connecting the Dots: Torture, Iraq, and the Creation of Propaganda

So given that the Bush Administration was repeatedly advised that torture was not only illegal but an unreliable way to gather intelligence… why did they pursue it anyway?

ParanoiaI’m not usually much of a “plotting men in smoke- filled rooms” conspiracy theorist. In fact, I’ve written against the reflexive tendency to assume conspiracy. I’ve argued that conspiracy theories are often unfalsifiable, with no possible evidence that could persuade the theorist that they’re mistaken… thus making them articles of faith rather than conspiracies. And I tend to agree with the old saw that we shouldn’t ascribe to malevolence what can be ascribed to stupidity. Conscious, calculated malevolence is just not that common.

But I’ve been following the unfolding story about torturing detainees under the Bush administration. I’ve been connecting the dots. And I’m being led to a disturbing conclusion — even more disturbing in some ways than the revelations about the torture itself.

First, here are the known facts — the dots that I’m connecting.

Hussein bin ladenIt was revealed last week the reason — or one of the reasons — that the Bush administration pursued the torture of terrorism suspects. The reason was that they weren’t finding evidence of a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (a connection for which, to this date, absolutely no evidence has been found)… so they pursued torture to get that information.

Torture-and-truthIt was revealed — for the bezillionth time — that the Bush administration pursued the torture program against the best advice of multiple military and intelligence advisors… advisors who warned that torture not only is illegal, but produces bad, unreliable intelligence. (What with the “people will say anything to make the torture stop” thing.)

SEREAnd it was revealed that the U.S. torture program was based, in large part, on the SERE program, the U.S. military program that subjected our own soldiers to torture in order to train them to resist it. Specifically, these were torture techniques used by Communists in the Korean War. More specifically, these were torture techniques used by Communists in the Korean War, not to elicit useful intelligence, but to elicit propaganda — to elicit confessions from prisoners of things that they hadn’t actually done.

Let me say that again. These were torture techniques that were known to produce bad information… and that were used, not in spite of this fact, but because of it.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Doesn’t it seem as if the interrogation and torture program of the Bush Administration was being pursued, not to gather intelligence about possible terrorist activities, but to produce propaganda?

Doesn’t it seem as if the torture program was being pursued to elicit a confession about a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq… regardless of whether that connection actually existed?

Doesn’t it seem as if bad information — far from being a risk the Bush administration was willing to take — was actually the whole frakking point?

WaterboardingThe revelations of frequent, repeated tortures would seem to confirm this hypothesis. When you waterboard someone 183 times in a month, you’re not going to get any more information than you got the first 182 times. You’re not doing it to gather intelligence. You’re doing it to control them. You’re doing to get them to say, and do, exactly what you want them to.

And what the torturers wanted them to do was to say that there was a connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraq.

So we could use that as propaganda.

Now. Since I do tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theories, and since I think it’s important for said theories to be falsifiable hypotheses and not simply unshakable articles of faith, I think it’s important to say upfront what evidence would convince me that I was mistaken.

So here’s what would convince me that I was mistaken: Credible internal documents showing that the Bush administration was sincerely pursuing what they thought were the best interrogation methods for getting reliable intelligence from detainees… and that they were willing to accept whatever information was gathered from those interrogations, even if it wasn’t the information they wanted or expected.

But in the absence of that evidence…

… and given how many more of these dots are being revealed every day, and how much clearer the picture they’re drawing is becoming with each new revelation…

…I am coming to the disturbing conclusion that the torture program was not simply a case of all human decency being lost in a panicked pursuit of terrorism. It was not simply a case of illegal, grotesquely immoral, blindly misguided overkill.

It was a case of all human decency being lost in an illegal, grotesquely immoral pursuit of propaganda.

And that chills me to the bone.

Not Religious, But Spiritual

Please note: I get a little harsh in this piece. Be forewarned.

You’ve almost certainly heard this trope:

Mountain_imagination“I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is woo (although it often does). People use it who hold more or less traditional theistic beliefs, but have left their organized religion or never belonged to one. (For those people, the trope often goes, “I’m not religious, but I worship God in my own way.”) People use it to mean they believe in something other than the physical world: they don’t know exactly what, but they’re pretty sure it’s something. People even use it to mean that they find some sort of meaning and transcendence in life, and don’t know another word or context for meaning and transcendence other than spirituality.

Broken_glassBut I don’t think unorganized spirituality holds any more water than conventional religious beliefs. And while it doesn’t have the same power to brutalize or oppress that traditional organized religion does, it does have much the same power to derail critical thinking, and to prioritize personal bias over evidence, and to base important decisions on a foundation of sand.

Now, when I’m in a generous mood, I see this trope as coming from a totally valid desire to not be connected with the horrors of organized religion… while, at the same time, still feeling some sort of personal, emotional experience that the trope-holder thinks is a connection with God. (Or the Goddess, or the spirit world, or whatever.) The people who say it are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff; to take what they need and leave the rest. And while I think their interpretation of their experience is mistaken — I think it’s all chaff — I can certainly understand the impulse.

And sometimes, like deism, the “spiritual but not religious” trope is a gateway drug, a baby step out of religious belief. For people who are questioning religious belief but have been brought up to believe that religion is the source of all morality and meaning, “spiritual but not religious” can be a way to begin to let go of their beliefs without feeling like they’re stepping into the abyss. And I can definitely be generous about that.

Man_silhouetteWhen I’m in a less generous mood, though, I see this trope as totally smug and superior, without anything to back it up. I see it as a way of saying, “I am so special and independent, of course I don’t have anything to do with that hidebound organized religion, I’m far too free a spirit for that… but I’m also special and sensitive, and in touch with the powerful sacred things beyond this mundane world.”

So what’s my problem with it? Other than the smugness, I mean?

The obvious problem, of course, is that there’s not a shred of good evidence to back it up. There’s no more evidence for disorganized religion than there is for organized religion.

And in my experience, “spiritual but not religious” tends to be a very sloppy form of spirituality. It lacks even the tortured rigor of carefully thought-out theology; the discipline, pointless though it may be, of fervent religious practice. All too often, “spiritual but not religious” seems to mean, “I believe in some sort of supernatural world, but am not willing to give that belief much thought, or to seriously consider whether the spiritual world I believe in is consistent or makes sense.”

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3Rather more importantly, I think the “spiritual but not religious” trope completely plays into the idea that religious belief — excuse me, spiritual belief — makes you a finer, better person. There’s a defensiveness to it: like what the person is really saying is, “I don’t attend any religious services or practice any religious practice… but I’m not a bad person. Of course I still feel a connection to God/ the soul. I haven’t totally descended to the gutter. What do you take me for?” It gives aid and comfort to the idea that value and joy, transcendence and meaning, have to come from the spiritual — i.e. the world of the spirit, the world of the supernatural.

But I think my biggest problem with the “spiritual but not religious” trope is with the “mundane world” thing.

If being “spiritual but not religious” really does mean thinking of yourself as being in touch with the special sacred things beyond this mundane physical world… then I think that shows a piss- poor attitude towards the mundane physical world.

GalaxiesThe physical world is anything but mundane. The physical world is black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy. It is billions of galaxies rushing away from each other at breakneck speed. It is solid matter that is anything but solid: particles that can’t be seen by even the strongest microscope, separated by gaping vastnesses of nothing. It is living things that are all related, all with the same great- great- great- to the power of a zillion grandmother. It is space that curves, continents that drift. It is cells of organic tissue that somehow generate consciousness and selfhood.

When you take the time to learn about the mundane physical world, you find that it is anything but mundane.

And I think that the “I don’t follow any organized religion, but I know that there has to be something more to life than what we see” is doing a serious disservice to the astonishing and complex vastness of what we see.

WorstAs a blogger or commenter somewhere whose name I can’t remember once wrote: The “I’m spiritual but not religious” trope is trying to have the best of both worlds… but it’s actually getting the worst. It’s keeping the part of religion that’s the indefensible, unsupported- by- a- scrap- of- evidence belief in invisible beings; indeed, the part of religion that sees those invisible beings as more real, and more important, than the real physical world we live in. It’s keeping the part of religion that devalues reason and evidence and careful thinking, in favor of hanging onto any cockamamie idea that appeals to your wishful thinking. It’s keeping the part of religion that equates morality and value with believing in invisible friends. It’s keeping the part of religion that involves conferring a sense of superiority onto yourself, solely on the basis of your purported connection with an invisible world.

It’s keeping all that… and abandoning the part of religion that is community, and shared ritual, and charitable works, and a sense of belonging. It’s throwing out the baby, and keeping the bathwater — and then patting yourself on the back and saying, “Look at all this wonderful bathwater I have!”

“An Actual Lesbian Girlfriend,” Or, Why You Should Never Listen to Dan Savage About Bisexuality

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Sweet-savage-loveUsually, when I write about a Dan Savage “Savage Love” sex advice column, it’s with respect and admiration. It’s usually with a strong desire to share his ideas more widely, and to expand on those ideas with my own.

Not this time.

This time, I am smacking Mr. Savage across the head, and telling to stop acting like a twit.

In a recent column (well, recent when I originally wrote this piece), Savage compiled a sampler of questions from students on his recent tour of universities. And among them was this question:

“I’m a lesbian, and my girlfriend is bisexual and wants to have a three-way with a man. This makes me nervous. What should I do?”

Savage’s advice?

“Get yourself a refillable Xanax prescription, or get yourself an actual lesbian girlfriend.”

WTF?!?

This advice is so irresponsible it made my jaw drop. But because the advice is so terse — and because the snark- to- content ratio is so disproportionately high — it’s a little hard to tease out its actual content, and the actual intent behind it. Near as I can tell, though, it seems to be one of the following three things. All of which suck.

Lesbians should beware of relationships with bisexual women, since bi women will leave lesbians for men. In a relationship between a lesbian and a bi woman, this will always be a irreparable source of anxiety. Lesbians are better off with other lesbians — they’re more reliable.

SexqueansRight. And no lesbian in the history of Lesbonia has ever left her lover for another woman.

I have never been able to figure this one out. Why is it so intolerable for a lesbian to be left for a man, or for a gay man to be left for a woman? Why is this so radically different from being left for another woman, or another man? Dumpage is dumpage. Why should the genitals of the person you’re being dumped for make any difference?

Maybe Savage has fallen prey to the myth that bisexuals can’t be monogamous or satisfied in a relationship, because they’ll always be yearning for the gender they don’t have. If so… does he have any evidence for that? Is there any reason to think that being hot for both women and men makes you restless and cheaty, any more than being hot for both blonds and brunettes does?

And is there any evidence for the idea — one that Savage has asserted before, with no apparent basis in actual research — that bisexuals are more likely to wind up in opposite- sex relationships than same- sex ones?

The snark here is especially puzzling because, in this very column, Savage answers a more general question about three-ways with a thoughtful and fair reply. Question:

Carnival of love“We are a couple in a long-term committed relationship and have casually considered the possibility of a three-way. It would have to be with someone neither of us knew (or saw) to reduce any chance of an emotional attachment. Good idea?”

Savage’s advice:

“Three-ways with complete strangers are kind of difficult to arrange — unless you’re willing to go the rent-a-third route. But if you want to have a three-way with someone trustworthy and safe, you’re better off doing it with an acquaintance or an ex.”

A reasonable answer. A bit broad, could have used some clarification; but fine for a column of quickies. And his quickie response shows a basic respect for both the questioner and their partner, and for both of their sexual desires. Why doesn’t the bisexual girlfriend get the same respect?

So. That’s Option 1. Option 2:

Lesbians should beware of relationships with bisexual women, since the bi women will try to get them to do sexual things — like FFM three-ways — that the lesbians don’t want to do.

WarpedwomenRight. And no lesbian in the history of lesbianicity has ever pressured her lover to do sexual things she doesn’t want.

If your bisexual girlfriend wants to have a three- way with a man, and it’s not your thing, then say, “No.” Or, if you’re non-monogamous, say, “No, I don’t want to, but you go knock yourself out with some other partner.” Or, if the idea doesn’t completely gross you out and you like to be good, giving, and game, say, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give that a try.”

Just like you would if your lesbian girlfriend wanted to fuck you in the ass, or wanted you to dress her up like a pony, or wanted to role-play at being Ann Coulter and Martha Stewart — or wanted to do a three-way with another woman — and it’s not your thing.

What does that have to do with bisexual versus lesbian?

If Mr. Savage wouldn’t advise anyone else to break up with their partner solely because of their unshared interest in ass play or pony play or Coulter play… why is he advising this woman to break up with her bisexual girlfriend, solely because of her unshared interest in MFF three-way play?

Finally, Option 3:

None of the above — at least, not clearly or explicitly. Dan Savage just has a bug up his butt about bisexuals, and he enjoys yanking our chain and watching us jump.

ThebisexualfemaleIf that’s it, then good job. Well done. Here I am, Mr. Savage, along with probably lots of other bisexuals, jumping at the yank of your chain. If you wanted to make Serak the Bisexual cry, mission accomplished.

But is that really a mission you want to accomplish?

Do you really want to convey misinformation about bisexuals — especially to college students, many of whom are only beginning to figure out sex and their own sexual identity — just so you can have fun watching us get ticked off?

Let me ask you this, Mr. Savage. If you read a sex advice columnist who deliberately spread harmful sexual myths about gay men, just because he had a grudge against them and took pleasure in provoking them… how would you react? Would you think, “Oh, that cut-up, he has such a wacky sense of humor”? Or would you think he was acting like a bigoted, irresponsible, manipulative twit?

See, the other bug that Savage seems to have up his butt about bisexuals is that we take ourselves too seriously, and don’t have a sense of humor about being goaded. Unlike everybody else on the planet — and definitely unlike every other marginalized group — we get annoyed when people deliberately poke at our sore spots with a stick. How unreasonable of us.

This bed we madeThe bisexuals I know have a great sense of humor — about bisexuality among other things. But yes, freakishly enough, when you prick us, we bleed. When you poison our reputation, we suffer. And when you wrong us, we may not revenge, but we fucking well are going to squawk about it.

It’s the phrase “actual lesbian girlfriend” that really frosts my cookies. I have been an actual girlfriend to my sweetheart — also female, also bisexual — for over eleven years. Technically, I suppose I’m not her “actual girlfriend” anymore, since we’ve gotten married — three times, in fact — and I’m now her “actual wife.” But the fact that I am an actual bisexual wife instead of an actual lesbian wife has exactly zero impact on my love, my loyalty, my passionate devotion to her, and my commitment to our relationship.

And I have more than paid my dues for the LGBT community. I’ve worked for shitty pay for LGBT community businesses; I’ve donated money to LGBT organizations; I’ve written at length, over the entire course of my career, about LGBT issues. I am not Them. I am Us. And I am tired of gays and lesbians treating me like a Them simply because I have crushes on both Rachel Maddow and Alan Rickman.

Homos dont cryI don’t know what your issues are with bisexuals, Mr. Savage. I don’t know whether you got dumped for a woman by a bi guy and got your heart stomped, or what. And I don’t care. You’re acting like a twit. You’ve acted like a twit about this issue for as long as I’ve been reading you. Get over it.

You’re a sex advisor. As such, you have a responsibility to base your advice on reality — not on your personal biases or vendettas. Try this for a quickie answer to the question: “Relax. If you don’t want a MFF three-way, say ‘No.’ Just like you would with any other sexual request you’re not interested in.” Or, if you want to be more nuanced, try this: “What exactly are you nervous about? Are you afraid she’ll leave you if you say ‘No’? Or if you say ‘Yes’? Figure out what you’re nervous about. Tell your girlfriend. Find out where she’s coming from with this and how important it is to her. And work it out.”

See? Was that so hard?

You’re a sex advisor. You’re usually a good one. Act like one. Don’t give advice that misinforms people — especially young people — about bisexuals, just because you have some weird bug up your ass about us. Get over it already.

Anti-SM Hysteria? In San Francisco? (Moooo!)

(If you’re not a Bay Area resident, ask someone who is to explain the “Moooo!” joke.)

San franciscoYou know, there are some assumptions I make because I live in San Francisco. And one of those assumptions is that, when I pick up one of the local alternative free newspapers, I won’t find grossly bigoted misinformation being spread about my consensual sexual orientation.

I was wrong.

Kink.comSan Francisco residents may already be aware of the “Whipped and Gagged” piece that ran this week in the SF Weekly — a lurid and hysterical piece on the Kink.com porn production company, attempting to whip up outrage over the fact that Kink.com employees got technological training funds from the State of California… and equating consensual sadomasochism with torture. (Violet Blue does a thorough evisceration and debunking of the piece on SFAppeal.)

Consensual sadomasochismThe hysteria about “your taxes are paying for porn!” is irritating enough. (Kink.com is a legally recognized corporation in San Francisco, and had every legal right to apply for and receive these training funds.) But it’s nothing compared to the grotesque misinformation the piece spreads about SM. It repeatedly describes Kink.com’s films as “torture- based pornography” and “videos depicting sexualized torture,” and repeats the anti-porn canard that porn performers don’t want or freely choose the work, and only go into it out of economic desperation. (In fact, Kink.com is renowned for seeking out performers who are lifestyle players and who give authentic, enthusiastic performances — and for treating those performers well.)

I sent the following letter to the SF Weekly, both as a letter to the editor and as a direct email to the editor himself. I encourage all readers of this blog — especially those who live in the Bay Area — to send their own letters. They’re not going to know that we’re mad if we don’t tell them.

Editor:

I thought you should know that, as a direct result of Matt Smith’s bigoted and willfully ignorant piece “Whipped and Gagged,” I will no longer be picking up the SF Weekly, or looking at it online.

I would not read a paper that was luridly bigoted and hateful about gay people, and I have no interest in reading a paper that is so luridly bigoted and hateful about consensual sadomasochism. In equating consensual sadomasochism with torture, the piece fosters grotesque misinformation about sadomasochists. And Smith’s response to criticism about the piece makes it clear that he is not only unapologetic about this, but is likely to continue doing it in the future.

To try to whip up hostility and fear of sadomasochists in a town as proud of its sexual diversity as San Francisco is not only unethical, but one of the most foolish business choices I can imagine. Unless a sincere and strongly worded apology is forthcoming, you have lost at least one regular reader — and I suspect that this piece is losing you more. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Greta Christina

Sex, Spontaneity, and the “Swept Away” Myth

Swept awayI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the myth that sex has to be spontaneous, that you have to be swept away by impulsive passion, in order for it to be any good — and why, apart from the obvious reasons, the myth does damage to sex lives. It’s called Sex, Spontaneity, and the “Swept Away” Myth, and here’s the teaser:

I’ve written before about the myth of sexual spontaneity: the myth that, for sex to be good and meaningful, the desire has to strike both partners out of the blue and be acted on immediately. I’ve written about how unrealistic the myth is, how poorly it fits into the reality of many people’s sex lives; I’ve written about the narrow and limiting definition of sexual desire it creates.

But I’ve been thinking lately about another — and in many ways more serious — problem with the myth of sexual spontaneity.

And that’s that it contributes to the idea that sex is dirty and bad… and thus makes people feel like sex is only okay if they don’t take responsibility for it.

To find out how the “swept away” myth is linked to the idea that sex is bad — and what we can do about it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re inspired to comment on this piece on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well. They like comments there, too.

Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #6

CarnivalAnd today, we have yet another round of Cool Stuff I Found On the Blogosphere and Elsewhere on the Internet. I haven’t done one of these in a while, and it’s past time.

By Hemant Mehta on Friendly Atheist: You Say We’re Redefining Marriage? You’re Redefining Love. The anti- gay Christian Right loves to fear- monger by saying that same-sex marriage advocates are “redefining marriage.” And they also say that they don’t hate gay people, they love gay people, with tropes like “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Hemant argues beautifully that, given these folks’ appalling behavior towards LGBT people, they’re doing something much more serious than redefining marriage — they are redefining love. This piece is entirely made of win.

By Susie Bright on Susie Bright’s Journal: SERE Training Turned My Boyfriend from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. There’s been a lot in the news lately about the SERE training done by the U.S. government to try to train soldiers to resist torture… techniques that were adopted by interrogators in the Bush administration. Susie writes about someone she knew who went through the SERE training, and what it did to him. A chilling, intensely personal account, not of the techniques of torture, but of its effects… even under supposedly controlled circumstances.

By NonStampCollector: What Would Jesus NOT Do? A bust- a- gut, laugh- out- loud funny video, in which angels try to persuade Jesus to do something broadly helpful to humanity and genuinely convincing of his divinity, instead of just walking on water and healing a handful of people. (Translation: Angels make atheists’ arguments for us.) Totally hilarious, and an absolute must-see. (Via Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula.)

By The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel: The Boyfriend. An insightful, creepy, hilarious piece on romantic and sexual imagery of Jesus in Christian songs… otherwise known as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music.

By Eric Michael Johnson at The Primate Diaries: Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion? How sexist attitudes in science reporting doesn’t just foster sexism — it fosters a bad understanding of science.

And by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism: Dreams of a Better World. Why hopeful optimism isn’t blind or self-deluded, but is actually a reasonable life philosophy.

Happy reading!

Perverts Put Out, Sat. April 25

Perverts out outIf you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, or if you’re going to be in the Bay Area this Saturday, I heartily encourage you to come to Perverts Put Out, the long- running pansexual reading and performance series. I’m not reading this time, but PPO is always a good time, and is often a transcendently mind- blowing and amazing time, with readings and performances about sex that are funny, freaky, poignant, thought- provoking, unsettling… and, of course, hot.

This Saturday is their Erect the Maypole edition, and readers/ performers will include Meliza Banales, m.i. blue, Sherilyn Connely, Nabil Hijazi and TedPro, Thomas Roche, horehound stillpoint, and Hew Wolff, with emcees Dr. Carol Queen and Simon Sheppard. Perverts Put Out will be on Saturday, April 25, starting at 7:30 pm, at CounterPulse, 1310 Mission Street in San Francisco. $10-15 sliding scale. I’ll be there — hope you will, too!

Religion and the Difference Between Possible and Plausible, or, Why You Shouldn’t Jump Out of Windows

Does it make sense to live your life on an unsupported premise, simply because you can’t disprove that premise with absolute certainty?

And is it reasonable and right to try to talk people out of their unsupported beliefs, even if you can’t disprove those beliefs with absolute certainty?

100_percentFor some reason, I’ve been running into the “You can’t disprove religion with 100% certainty, therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe in it, and therefore you atheists are being intolerant for trying to talk me out of it” argument a lot more than usual lately. I’ve pointed out the glaring flaws in this argument before, more than once, as have many other atheists. And yet, people keep making it. (What’s the matter with them? Don’t they read my blog?)

So today, I want to get at this argument in a different way.

There’s a point that a lot of atheists make about this argument, which is this: Believers don’t apply this sort of thinking in any other area of their lives. In most other areas of their lives, believers base their actions, not on what might be hypothetically possible, but on what is most likely to be plausible. Their car might start running on sugar water, the rocks in their backyard might have turned into candy, if they jump out the window there might be invisible fairies waiting to gently carry them down to earth… but they don’t act as if these things are true. But with religion, people will happily argue that it might hypothetically be true… and therefore, it’s reasonable for them to act as if it were true, and the rest of us have to take it seriously.

So here’s the argument I want to have with the invisible theist in my head.

Fairy 2It is hypothetically possible that, if you jump out of a fourth- floor window, invisible fairies will catch you and carry you gently down to earth.

Are you, therefore, going to jump out of a fourth- floor window, based on that slim but not 100%- dismissible fairy hypothesis?

Or are you, instead, going to go with the far more plausible hypothesis that you should probably take the stairs or the elevator, since if you jump out the window, the chances are excellent that you will plummet to a squishy death?

And if you don’t go with the fairy hypothesis just because “you can’t absolutely prove that it’s not true”… then why should you go with the God hypothesis?

Now. At this point, the invisible theist in my head is arguing, “But why do you care what other people believe?” (Unless they’re trying to argue that the God hypothesis is more plausible than the fairy hypothesis, because lots of other people believe it or something. In which, I direct them here, and then go watch Buffy reruns.)

But assuming that my invisible theist is in fact arguing, “But why do you care what other people believe?”… here is my answer.

If you saw someone getting ready to jump out a window because they believed that invisible fairies would carry them to the ground… wouldn’t you try to stop them?

People are jumping out of the religion window every day.

And they’re pushing other people out.

911There are the blindingly obvious cases: the suicide bombers, the people flying planes into buildings, the Pope telling people in Africa that condoms make Baby Jesus cry. There are the less obvious cases: the children who are taught to reject and despise science and evidence and reality in general; the wives who are told by their preachers to stay in abusive marriages; the sick people who put their lives in the hands of faith healers.

And there are the cases that are so woven into the fabric of our society we often don’t even notice it. The children who are traumatized by visions of the horrible tortures of Hell. The ministers and other religious leaders dispensing life advice with no training in counseling, based only on the dogma of their faith. The families who barely talk to each other, or don’t talk to each other at all, because of religious differences. The teenagers who are taught that God thinks sex is sinful and disgusting and they should therefore save it for the person they marry. The gay teenagers who are taught to hate themselves.

I could go on, and on, and on. I have.

That is an awful lot of misery and death to be inflicting, on the off-chance that there might be invisible fairies carrying you to the ground when you jump.

Windows_1So I ask again: If you saw someone about to jump out of a window — or about to push someone out of a window — because they believed that fairies would carry them to the ground… wouldn’t you try to stop them?

That’s what the atheist movement is doing. That’s why we care what other people believe. We care what other people believe because people act on their beliefs… and with many of those actions, people are hurting themselves, and each other. We see people jumping out of the religion window, and pushing other people out of it, on a daily basis.

Now, if you think we’re mistaken — if you think God really exists and there’s good evidence to support that theory — then by all means, convince me. Show me the money.

But if all you have is “My holy book says it” and “Lots of other people believe it” and “I feel it in my heart”… then I’m sorry, but what you have on your hands is invisible fairies who are going to carry you down to the ground if you jump out the window.

StaircaseAnd it is not intolerant for atheists to try to talk you out of it. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to show you why there are almost certainly no invisible window fairies. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to persuade you that the fairy hypothesis, while not absolutely unproven, is far less plausible than the “plummeting to your death” hypothesis… and to try to persuade you to take the stairs instead. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to show you that you may be hurt if you jump… and that you may hurt other people if you push them.

Against Nostalgia, or, I’m In Love with the Modern World: On Not Being a Crank, Part 2

Statler-and-waldorf-posterI keep thinking about this question of how to get older without turning into a crank. And today, I want to talk about one of the methods I’ve long used in my attempts to avoid crankery. It’s a fairly simple one, at least in theory:

Listen to music that’s being made now.

My rule is this: I don’t let myself just listen to music that was recorded when I was in college and my early twenties (or earlier). I make a conscious effort to listen to at least some music that’s being made now, by musicians and bands who are still alive and still working. (And no, reunion tours don’t count.)

But for some reason, that can be a hard thing for people to do.

R.crumb_draws_the_bluesI was just reading the comic collection R. Crumb Draws the Blues. (Conflict of interest alert: it’s published by the company I work for.) In a couple of pieces, Crumb was waxing nostalgic about how great old folk and old blues and old jazz and old country music was — all well and good, I heartily support those sentiments. He was ranting about how music has become professionalized, something an audience listens to rather than something a culture engages in — again, sentiments I largely share. In fact, one of the big reasons I’m a folk nerd is how strongly I feel about people making their own music and other art as a way of resisting homogenized corporate culture.

But he was also ranting about how universally horrible modern music was. And that, I have no truck with. I love R. Crumb, I like this book, and I certainly respect the guy’s cred on the topic of old- time music. But I think he completely missed the boat here.

And I want to talk about what that boat is, and why it’s important.

The Crumb piece reminded me of a comment Dave Barry once made. I forget now what the piece was about… but the comment was something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing here), “Music made in the ’70s is all crap. The music I listened to in the ’60s… now, that was great music. But ’70s music, it’s just this bland, banal junk.”

Clash coverAnd I was gobsmacked by how ignorant and out- of- touch this was. Yes, the ’70s were the decade of Bread and America and Hall & Oates. But some amazing music was made in the ’70s. I mean, the ’70s was when punk happened. The Clash, the Boomtown Rats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Stranglers… all ’70s bands. And not just punk. David Bowie, Neil Young, Talking Heads… ’70s. Some of these folks got their start in the ’60s, and some had careers that extended into the ’80s… but they were making some of their best music right in the heart of the supposedly banal ’70s.

And some seriously crap music was being made in the ’60s. Sure, you can wax nostalgic about the brilliant cutting- edge music made in 1967. You wanna know what the Number One hit song of 1967 was? “To Sir With Love.”

Which brings me to my first major point. I think there are two things that make it easy to think everything was better in the good old days. There’s Sturgeon’s Law — and there’s the filtering process of time.

Sturgeon’s Law states, quite simply, that 90% of everything is crap. Romantic comedies, symphonies, science fiction novels, porn videos, dress designs, epic poems, comic books, popular music… 90% of all of it is crap.

Pride and prejudiceBut time has a tendency to filter out the crap. We don’t listen to the mediocre 18th century operas; we don’t read the mediocre 19th century novels; we don’t watch the mediocre silent movies. We listen to Mozart, read Jane Austen, watch Buster Keaton. We listen to Janis Joplin and The Who. “To Sir With Love”? Not so much.

It’s not a perfect filtering process. Some good stuff gets filtered out; some mediocre crap gets through the screen. But on the whole, we let the crap get swallowed into the maw of history, and hang onto the good stuff. Which makes it very, very easy to mistakenly think that the operas and novels and movies and popular songs of the old days were so much better than any of the crap they’re making today.

And we tend to hang on to the good stuff in our memories as well. If we have fond memories of our youths or our college days or whatever, we tend to remember the good music and so on from those days… and conveniently forget how much dreck was around back then. And since it takes a certain amount of effort, and you need to sort through a fair amount of dreck, to find good music or whatever being made now, it’s way too easy to just keep listening to the stuff that we know is good and that we know we like.

Which brings me to my next point.

I jonathanThere’s a Jonathan Richman song, “Summer Feeling,” that captures almost perfectly what I’m getting at. The song is about the giddy, exuberant, irresponsible- in- the- best- sense- of- the- word freedom of youth: childhood, or college, or whatever youth you had that you loved. And it’s about how important it is to hang on to some of that feeling and to re-create it here and now… and how poisonous and sad it is to just let yourself be haunted by memories and lost opportunities. (For the usually chipper Jonathan Richman, the song is kind of a downer.)

And there’s a verse that goes like this:

When even fourth grade starts looking good
Which you hated
And first grade’s looking good too
Overrated
And you boys long for some little girl that you dated
Do you long for her or for the way you were?

Do you long for her, or for the way you were?

Do you long for the music… or do you long for who you were when you were first listening to the music?

And when you long for that feeling, do you try to find something happening here and now that makes you feel that way? Or do you just listen to the music that used to make you feel that way?

Which brings me — somewhat harshly, I’ll admit — to my real point.

I think nostalgia is the easy way out.

Big book of nostalgiaI think it’s way too easy to just reflexively say, “Music/ life/ whatever was so much better back in the old days… but those days can never be recaptured, they’re gone for good. So instead of trying to find music or movies or whatever stuff is good now, I’m just going to keep listening to stuff from the old days that I know I like. And I’m going to gradually sink into old crankhood, and gripe about the world instead of taking part in it or trying to understand it.”

It’s a cop-out. It’s a way of evading responsibility for participating in your life, and in the world — here, and now. It’s an excuse for avoiding the risks and the emotional rollercoaster of engaging with the world around you. It’s an excuse for sitting on the sidelines and watching the world go by. This modern world sucks — so why bother?

Charles Burns Black HoleWell, I’m going to go out on a limb here: This modern world does not suck. Like Jonathan Richman from another song, I’m in love with the modern world. I love literary graphic novels, and slow-core, and feminism, and the atheist blogosphere, and queer contra dancing, and readily available legal pornography, and organic produce delivered to my door, and same-sex marriage, and email, and “The Office,” and being openly bisexual without fear. Of course there are disappointments and horrors in the modern world. You don’t have to tell me that. Some are the same old disappointments and horrors we’ve had since the dawn of humanity; some are brand new to our time. But there are joys in the modern world as well: some are the same old joys we’ve had since the dawn of humanity, and some are brand new to our time.

And the modern world has one enormous advantage over the old days: It’s the world I live in. It’s the world I can take part in, now, today. The old days had their plusses and minuses (and of course I’ll enjoy their plusses if I can); the modern world has its plusses and minuses. But the modern world is a parade I can march in. Nothing beats that.

13th floor elevatorsYou know what? If what you truly love is old- time bluegrass or ’60s psychedelia? That’s cool. It might behoove you to check out some modern music anyway — there are contemporary musicians doing some interesting interpretations of bluegrass and psychedelia — but life is too short to listen to music that you hate. There are wonderful things from the past, and by all means, we should be enjoying them and preserving them and keeping them alive.

But we shouldn’t treat our aesthetic preferences as a moral imperative. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s a serious life philosophy to gripe about kids these days and their crazy fashions. We shouldn’t act as if shutting out the modern world somehow makes us discerning and superior.

And if we catch ourselves reflexively saying, “(X) was so much better in the old days, they just don’t make (X) like they used to,” I think it’s worth making an effort to remember all the generic, banal crap that was being cranked out in the old days… and to pay attention to the good stuff being made right now.

Low the great destroyerP.S. Right now, my favorite band is Low, this gorgeous slow-core band with harmonies that send literal physical chills through my body. I’m also listening to Varttina, a band from Finland that marries eerie Eastern European folk harmonies with a peppy pop sensibility; and the Mountain Goats, a “guy with a guitar” project that’s somehow both lush and spare; and Nick Cave, who feeds my inner morbid brooder; and Joanna Newsom, with her profoundly strange voice that on first hearing sounds like a cat wailing and on second hearing sounds like an avant- garde angel; and Radiohead, who walk that beautiful thin line between accessible straight-up rock and edgy industrial unlistenability. Just for starters. What music being made today are you listening to, and what do you like about it? And on the larger question — what specific techniques have you developed for avoiding crankhood and staying in touch with the world as you get older?

Also in this series:
On Not Being a Crank

What Does It Mean to Want Sex?

River of desireI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. I think this is one of my better pieces — not that any of them suck, but I’m especially proud of this one — and I especially encourage you all to check it out. It’s about the common “bed death” problem in long- term relationships… and about what we mean when we say that we “want” or “don’t want” sex… and how rethinking the one can be a way of dealing with the other.

It’s called What Does It Mean to Want Sex?, and here’s the teaser:

When we talk about “wanting” sex, we tend to mean the immediate animal urge. The hard cock or clit. The overpowering physical desire to get busy, now.

But there are other ways of “wanting” sex. You can want the effect sex has on your life, and on your relationship. You can want the closeness and intimacy it gives you with your partner. You can want the affirmation it gives, the feeling of being desired and valued. You can want the confidence and poise that being an actively sexual person can give. You can want the transcendence that sex can create, the experience of epiphany and transformative joy.

And for that matter, you can want the pure animal pleasure of sex… without having the immediate physical desire for it. You can know in your head how great sex can feel, and want to re-create that feeling — without your dick or clit being hard right that second. (Sick people often don’t feel much appetite for food — but if they’re smart, they know that food will make them feel better, and they know that once they start eating, their appetite is likely to return.)

This is a bit of a tricky distinction. So let me draw a couple of analogies before I move on.

To find out more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!