Reactionaries

Spiro_AgnewI grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, raised by liberal, politically- active, borderline- hippie parents. (Borderline- beatnik might be more accurate.) So growing up, I heard the word “reactionary” thrown around a lot.

And I never really understood it. I got that the word meant “very conservative” or “hard right wing” — but apart from that, I never had a sense of what “reactionary,” specifically, meant.

I am beginning to understand.

Like a lot of people, I have been watching the flailings of the Republican Party with a combination of repugnance, entertainment, and unholy glee. Like a lot of people, I have noticed that the Republican Party essentially has little or nothing to offer in the way of actual ideas or constructive suggestions. And like a lot of people, I have noticed that the only thing the Republican Party currently seems capable of doing is reflexively saying “No!” to anything Obama and the Democrats say or do. (Imagine that “No!” in the Ted Stevens voice.) If President Obama and the Democratic Party were to put forth a statement declaring that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious, the GOP would be on the cable news shows within the hour, denouncing this as the vilest piece of rabid socialism and government invasion into our private lives, an intolerable insult to cute kittens and chocolate chip cookies, destined to destroy our moral foundation and undermine everything that is good and right about our great nation.

All they’re doing is reacting. They aren’t even reacting against specific ideas they disagree with. They are reflexively reacting against every single idea to come out of the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress.

In other words:

They’re reactionaries.

Gladstone_debateNow, as entertaining and deeply satisfying as it is to watch the GOP repeatedly shoot itself in the foot, there’s an odd way in which I find the spectacle disappointing. I actually think political disagreement and debate is a good idea. I think our ideas are sharpened and clarified by criticism from smart people who disagree with us. And it’s not like I think every idea coming out of the Obama White House and the current Democratic Congress is a good one. (Boy, howdy, do I ever not think that.) I’m probably going to disagree with 95% of the ideas generated by conservative Republicans… but I’d still like to see them generate some.

Take a classic Democrat/ Republican debate point. Take government spending. Now, on this issue, I’m even further to the left than the most liberal Democrat in Congress. I am that variety of “tax and spend/ big government liberal” known as a social democrat. When conservatives scream that liberals are trying to turn America into France, I’m one of those people who replies, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I think government is — or should be, and could be, and often is — the central means by which a society pools some of its resources to make life better for everyone… and weirdly enough, I think this is a good idea, and that we should generally be doing more of it.

But I also think that, when it comes to any given government program, it’s useful to have a serious debate about whether it’s a good idea. I think it’s useful for smart people to debate whether this particular program is the best use of our pooled resources: whether it will be effective in accomplishing its goals, whether some other program might accomplish these goals better, whether some different goals might be more important, whether these goals are even worth accomplishing. And I think having some people in politics who are generally excited about action and programs and change, and other people who are generally more cautious and want to put on the brakes, is not inherently a terrible idea. It keeps society adaptive, without being chaotic.

BoehnerWe’re not getting that. We’re not getting Republicans who are saying, “Hey, this particular government program is a bad idea, and this is specifically why, and here’s what we propose instead.” Instead, we have Republicans who are reflexively reacting against all government programs, against the very idea of government programs, of any kind, ever. (Begging the question, “So why did you get into government, anyway?” But that’s a rant for another day.)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I think I’m just trying to say this: If people are arguing against political changes, I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, obviously much of the time I’ll have a problem with the specifics of it — but I don’t have a problem with the basic principle.

But that’s not what I’m seeing in the GOP. They’re not against this change, or that change. They’re against change. They’re against the idea of change. No matter how bad things are, now matter how horrible the status quo is for the vast majority of Americans, they’re against the very concept of change.

And they’re not arguing against it. They’re reacting to it.

They’re reactionaries.

What Does It Mean to Want Sex?

Please note: This piece doesn’t discuss my personal sex life in lurid detail, but it does discuss it. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

What does it mean to “want” sex?

Perv panelThere was a letter to the Perv Panel advice columnists at Carnal Nation that’s shoved this question into my mind. In the Lesbian Bed Death letter, the author says that, after four years in a committed relationship, neither she nor her partner has any real interest in sex anymore. In one sentence, she says they’re content; in the next sentence, she says she feels like they should do something about it.

The advice from the Perv Panel was fine, as far as it went. But I think there’s a very important core concept here that none of the advisors really got into.

It’s this:

There is more than one way to “want” sex.

Master of desireWhen 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.

In_the_gymI very rarely “want” to go to the gym. When I have a rare free moment, and I stop and think, “What do I most want to do right now?”, the answer is very rarely, “What I most want is to lift weights and walk on a treadmill.” And yet, once I’m at the gym, I enjoy it. I actually do have fun working out once I’m doing it. Of course it gives me medium- and long-term payoffs in stamina and mental health and such… but I’m not even talking about that. Walking on a treadmill and lifting weights is a positive sensual pleasure. Sometimes even an erotic pleasure. I just have a hard time remembering that until I’m actually doing it.

WaltzingThat may not be the best example. I realize I’m a bit of a freak, and not everyone is tickled to be at the gym once they’re there. So I’ll give another example before I get back to the point: Dancing. If I’m tired at the end of a long day, I often don’t “want” to get in the car and drive across town to go dancing. What I “want” is to sleep. Or watch SpankingTube and jerk off. Or collapse on the sofa, order takeout, and watch The Simpsons.

And yet, I love to dance. At its best, dancing makes me feel transcendently connected with humanity and the universe. At its worst, it’s a heckuva good time. It is one of the great pleasures of my life: a creative pleasure, an intellectual pleasure, a source of expansive shared joy with a community, a source of intimate shared joy with my wife. And on a purely physical, sensual level, it just feels good. Once I’m dancing, I am never, ever sorry that I went.

And in the same way, I am never, ever sorry that I had sex… even if I wasn’t in the mood when we started.

Couch potatoIt can be hard to overcome inertia and find the energy to do the things that we love. It’s easy to focus on the necessities of survival and getting through the day, and then just blob out once those necessities are handled… at the expense of the things that give our lives meaning and joy. Especially if we’re overscheduled and overworked. And for many of us, this gets harder as we get older. The automatically exuberant energy of youth often gives way as we age, and it takes more work and conscious effort to fan the flames into life. Especially when it comes to sex. And double especially when it comes to sex in long- term relationships.

And yet, one of the main things that defines being a mentally healthy grownup is that you can distinguish between the things you want right this second, and the things you want in the long run. Or even in the medium run. One of the things that defines being a mentally healthy grownup — and this isn’t a buzz-kill, this is one of adulthood’s greatest joys — is that you have the knowledge and self-discipline to defer the gratification of immediate desires, in order to fulfill larger, more deeply satisfying desires. This can mean passing on sex that you know is a bad idea even though you have a strong, urgent desire for it… but it can also mean pursuing sex that you know is a good idea, even though you have a strong, urgent desire to just order a pizza and then go to sleep.

BurgerAnd one of the things about getting older — and about being in a long-term relationship — is that sex tends to shift away from being a relentless, urgently demanding physical desire, and toward something familiar that’s easy to put on the back burner… but that’s richly and complexly satisfying when you set aside time and energy for it. It shifts away from, “I am totally starving right now, if I don’t get a burger in the next ten minutes I am going to pass out and die,” and moves toward, “We have some free time this Saturday — why don’t we cook something special? Let’s make that roast chicken you like so much, or try that recipe for polenta with red pepper sauce we keep looking at.”

Ingredients_for_a_mealThese are two very different ways of “wanting” food. And don’t get me wrong, both have their charms, I am a big fan of the starving hamburger lust. But it would be a huge mistake to say that only starving hamburger lust counts as “wanting” to eat. Setting aside time to plan and cook a meal also counts as “wanting” to eat, “wanting” the sensual pleasure and rich satisfaction that food can give you… even if you aren’t hungry right that second.

I’ve written something like this before: how, in order for sex to be satisfying, you don’t have to be in the mood when it starts. You just have to be willing to get in the mood. But I hadn’t thought of it quite this way before now. Being willing to get in the mood — being willing to seduce and be seduced, to be drawn in by the pleasures of sex even though you’re not feeling it when you start — is really just a different way of wanting it. It’s an acknowledgement that, even though you may not “want” sex in the more immediate and narrow sense of the word, you still “want” it in the larger and broader sense… and that therefore, you’re willing to prioritize it and make room for it in your life.

If you really, truly don’t want or care about sex on any level… okay. I personally have a hard time getting my mind around that — heck, I have a hard time understanding people who say they don’t like to dance — but I trust that, for a handful of people, it’s probably true.

But I did not get that from this letter at all. Maybe I’m misreading it: but I did not get the sense that the author of this letter was genuinely happy with the status quo. (For one thing, if she were, she wouldn’t be writing to sex advice columnists.) The author of this letter seemed dissatisfied and sad. It seemed like sex was important to her, or used to be important to her, and that even though the overpowering physical urge for it had dissipated, she still missed it.

So if what you mean by “I don’t seem to want sex anymore” is “I no longer feel the immediate physical urge for sex that I used to, but it’s still important to me and I want it in my life”… then I think it might behoove you to rethink what you mean by “wanting sex.” I think it might behoove you to stop thinking of “an immediate and overpowering physical lust” as the only meaningful definition of “wanting sex”… and to give the “it’s important to me and I want it in my life” meaning every bit as much weight.

A Skeptic’s View of Love

Lightbrush loveWhat does it mean to have a skeptical view of love?

I don’t mean having a cynical attitude about love. (Funny how the words “skepticism” and “cynicism” get conflated.) I mean taking a skeptical, materialist, entirely non-woo view of life — and applying it to how we think about love.

Tim minchinThe other day, Ingrid showed me this video by Tim Minchin, famed atheist and skeptical singer/ songwriter/ poet/ performance artist/ comedian. (For boring technical reasons, I’ll embed it at the end of the post instead of here.) The gist of the song, sung for and about his wife (spoiler alert!): “If I didn’t have you, I probably would have somebody else.”

At first, Ingrid was worried that I’d be hurt by her showing me the video. But like her, I found it hilarious — and in a freaky way, I found it one of the most romantic and loving things I’ve seen in a while. (“You fall within a bell curve” has now become one of our endearments.)

And it’s gotten me thinking about the whole idea of soul-mates, and romantic destiny, and there being one perfect love for you in the whole world. All of which I think is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

And I don’t think I’m being unromantic.

Wings of destinyFirst, obviously, I think the whole “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” thing is just wrong. Mistaken. Not true. I don’t think we have souls, much less mates for them; I don’t think there’s an invisible hand pushing people together (and if there were, it’d have a seriously sadistic sense of humor, what with putting people’s true destined loves on opposite sides of the country and whatnot).

But maybe more to the point:

The “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” vision of love puts the focus on love as something you feel — rather than something you do.

It puts the focus on love as something that happens to you — rather than something that you choose.

And I find it much more romantic, and much more loving, to see love as something we do, and something we choose.

When we see love solely as something that we feel… then what happens when those feelings change? As they inevitably do.

And when we see love solely as something that happens to us… then what happens when the going gets tough, and we have to make hard choices about the relationship? For that matter, what happens when something else happens to us — something that conflicts with the love? What happens when we get job offers in other cities… or when other romantic prospects appear on the horizon?

Of course a huge part of love is the way we feel about our beloved. The feelings of tenderness and passion that well up in me when I look at Ingrid, the feelings of anxious excitement that I had when we were first starting out…that’s an enormous part of what we have between us. And of course a huge part of love is the feeling that something has hit you out of the clear blue sky. When Ingrid and I were first going out, I used to say that I felt like I’d been conked on the head with a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. If love didn’t have the power to knock us out of our tracks and into a whole new life, it wouldn’t be what it is.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s enough to get love started — but it’s not enough to sustain it.

Dishes in sinkI think what sustains love is doing the dishes when you promised to. Remembering the book they said they wanted, and getting it for their birthday. Skipping the movie you wanted to see, to go with them to a party of their friends who you don’t know very well. Remembering which kind of seltzer water they like when you go shopping; remembering how they like their burgers cooked when you’re making dinner. Sitting with them when they’re grieving… and restraining your impulse to always try to fix things and give advice and make things better, and instead being willing to just sit still and be with them in their pain. Asking if there’s anything they need from the kitchen while you’re up. Wearing the stupid sticky breathing strip on your nose at night so your snoring doesn’t keep them awake. Bringing them endless cups of tea when they’re sick. Keeping your temper in an argument, and remembering that as angry as you might be right now, you love this person and don’t want to hurt them. Saying, “I love you.” Saying, “You’re beautiful” — not just when they’re dolled up for a night on the town, but when they come home from work and you notice that they look particularly fetching. Noticing when they come home from work looking particularly fetching. Going to their readings, their dance performances, their office parties. Going to their family gatherings, and treating their family as your family, too. Going to the vet together. Trying out music they like, books they like, recipes they like, hobbies they like, kinds of sex they like, even if you don’t think it’s your thing: not just because you want to make them happy, but because it’s part of who they are, and you want to find out more about them, and share the things that matter to them.

TimesIn the inimitable words of Tim Minchin, “Love is nothing to do with destined perfection/ The connection is strengthened; the affection simply grows over time… And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and synergy/ And symbiotic empathy or something like that… ” Sure, the feelings I have for Ingrid have a lot to do with the giant vaudeville rubber mallet I got conked on the head with when we fell in love. But they have more to do with the eleven plus years we’ve spent together: the meals we’ve eaten, the parties we’ve thrown, the vacations we’ve taken, the arguments we’ve had, the sex we’ve had, the griefs we’ve borne, the thousands of nights we’ve spent sleeping in the same bed, the long conversations we’ve had about politics, about religion, about books, about our friends, about our cats, about bad reality television.

And none of that has anything to do with fate.

DiceLike Tim Minchin, I’m intensely aware of the massive role that pure chance plays in our lives. Not fate, not destiny, but pure dumb random roll- of- the- dice luck. As passionately as I love San Francisco, I realize that I could have landed in a dozen other cities — New York, Portland, London, Seattle, Minneapolis — and settled happily there instead. I often think about the people in those cities who would have been my friends if I lived there instead of San Francisco; I sometimes even feel a loss, a yearning, for the people I’ve never met who could have been my best friends.

And I realize that if I’d wound up in one of those cities instead of San Francisco, I would never have met Ingrid, and we both would likely have met and fallen in love with other people instead. While there’s a pragmatic sense in which I suppose Ingrid and I were destined to meet — we both lived in San Francisco, we were interested in many of the same things, we knew many of the same people, it’s not actually that big of a city — any one of a thousand small choices and pieces of random chance could have resulted in our paths not crossing. Or not crossing at the right time.

What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me isn’t that she’s my soul-mate, my destiny, the one person in billions I could have loved and been happy with. What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me is the years we have behind us: the meals and parties and sex and conversations and trips to the vet and everything else. It’s the things we do, and have done, and will do for many years to come; it’s the choices we make, and have made, and will make in the years we have left.

Wedding portraitOf the people in the world I might have been happy with? She falls within a bell curve. Of the people in the world I now want to be with? She is entirely and 100% unique. Not because a divine hand made us uniquely suited to be together… but because we have chosen to make each other unique.

Oh, yeah. The Tim Minchin video is below the jump, since when I put videos above the jump it screws up my archives.

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“The cultural tethers of organized religion”: Interview with Black Atheist Sikivu Hutchinson

Scarlet letter black backgroundWhat is it like to be a black atheist?

Obviously, I wouldn’t know. But via Friendly Atheist, I recently read a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson for the L.A. Watts Times, titled ‘Out of the Closet’ — Black Atheists. (A must-read, by the way.) Her piece focused on one side of this question — being an atheist in the African American community. But I was curious about the other side: What is it like to be African American in the atheist community?

I don’t think this is something atheists talk about enough. We’re too willing to let our most prominent leaders and speakers mostly be white; we’re critical of the negative effect religion has on communities of color, but we don’t look very hard at why the atheist movement is so predominantly white, or what we could be doing to make our movement a safer place to land for people of color who are leaving religion.

So when I read Sikivu’s piece, I thought she’s be a good person to ask about this stuff. She was kind enough to give me an interview, and we spoke — well, okay, emailed — about privilege, the intersection of race and religion, the history of Christianity in African- American culture, what atheism has to contribute to society, and more. Here is that interview.

Greta Christina: In your piece for the L.A. Watts Times, you talked about being an atheist in the black community. Can you tell me a little about the flip side of that? What is it like to be a African- American in the atheist community? Have you encountered much racism? Have you found it to be pretty inclusive? Is it somewhere in between?

Atheism booksSikivu Hutchinson: As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic. I would like to see more atheists of color rise to prominence as theorists and scholars of record on atheist discourse, rather than the continued privileging of the usual “authorial” white suspects (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris).

On that topic: There’s often an assumption in political movements (I’ve seen it in the LGBT movement) that being inclusive of people of color simply means not being overtly and grossly racist. (As a queer woman, I’ve seen something similar, where people or organizations make subtle or not- so- subtle assumptions of heterosexuality, but they think they’re not being homophobic because they’re not hurling epithets or turning us away at the door.) Can you talk a little about that? What is the difference between being actively inclusive and welcoming of people of color… and simply not being overtly racist? And how does that play out in the atheist community?

Black church in the post civil rights eraOftentimes white folk engage with the issue of people of color and religious observance in a very paternalistic way — musing about the “backwardness” of people of color, particularly African Americans, who subscribe to Christian and Muslim dogma despite their histories of colonialism, terrorism and slavery. Although religious observance among African Americans is paradoxical for these very reasons, the white critique of said world view is narrow and lacking in consciousness of the cultural context that informs black adoption of Judeo- Christian mores and values. Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.

Getting away from race for a moment: Can you tell me a little about your own atheism? Were you raised as a non-believer, or did you have religion at one time and then deconvert… and if you deconverted, how did that happen? What effect did it have on your life and your relationship with family and friends at the time, and how has that changed over time?

I was fortunate to have grown up in a very secular household. My parents were highly literate politically conscious writer-teachers and placed a premium on independent thought. That said religion was still a part of my life because it was so integral to much of African American extended family and community. My grandparents were very religious and I frequently went to their Methodist church when I was growing up. I had some vague notion of and belief in the existence of God up until the first year of high school when I was totally galvanized into agnosticism by an utterly brain-dead Catholic School experience which signaled the end of my suspension of disbelief!

There’s a common assumption that the black community, and other communities of color in the U.S. such as the Hispanic community, are more deeply religious than white people. Do you think that’s true? If so, why do you think that is? And if not, where do you think that assumption comes from?

Black church beginningsAs I mentioned before religious observance is a powerful influence in communities of color. However, given the enormous political influence of white Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. it would be reductive to say that people of color are “more” religious than whites —- rather, religion, for better or for ill, has in many respects played a formative role in allowing people of color to navigate and survive institutional racism and domestic terrorism. This is the defining difference between white Christian fundamentalist observance and, say, African American spiritualism predicated on a notion of liberation theology that derives from a redemptive view of the moral universe. In this regard African Americans who have broken from these traditions have a more complex “meta-critical” relationship with organized religion than do white atheists who have rejected religion.

On that topic: When people criticize atheism and the newly vocal, “openly critical of religion” atheist movement, one of the tropes that I see a lot is that this openly critical atheism is disrespectful to marginalized communities like the black community. The argument goes that because religion is so deeply interwoven into black history and black culture, and because the comfort of religion is so important to a community that’s had such a hard time of it, criticizing religion is disrespectful and racist. As a black atheist, what are your thoughts on that?

Frederick_DouglassClearly criticizing religion is not racist. One of the charges of atheistic discourse is foregrounding how there is nothing intrinsically superior about religious observance — its value for African Americans as a people derives from a specific cultural and historical context of institutional racism and oppression. The supposed basic moral precepts of Judeo- Christian theology — love for one’s neighbor, tolerance, doing unto others, non-judgment, etc. — are certainly not exclusive to religious doctrine, while the hierarchies, persecution and intolerance based on race, gender, sexuality and ideology that religious doctrine breeds effectively negate the moral preeminence that organized religion presumes. These contradictions open up a path for critical engagement by atheists of color with why organized religion has been so toxic vis-a-vis validating the rich diversity of communities of color. African American intellectuals and thinkers (see for example Frederick Douglass’ critique of “slaveholding” Christianity) have always challenged the role religious orthodoxy plays in African American communities. This historical complexity has just never been “officially” recognized by white scholars.

Again moving away from race for a moment: A lot of atheists are talking about how we need to not just criticize religion: we also need to present the positive aspects of atheism as a meaningful and satisfying way to live. What do you see as the meaningful and beneficial side of atheism? And how does your atheism shape the way you live your life?

Faith based initiatives bush administrationSure atheism could use a PR infusion that extols the virtues and sexiness of secular belief. However, much of the discourse around atheism necessarily involves upending the orthodoxies and hypocrisies of organized religion that enshrine it as a “natural” and “normal” way of life for many. I for one think that there has not been enough political exposure of the massive welfare state entitlements that have been conferred on organized religion in the form of so-called faith-based initiatives. Atheist “activists” have an important role to play in shifting the discourse to frame organized religion (and highlight the theocratic nature of the U.S. and the continued degradation of the separation between church and state) as just another corrupt welfare swilling special interest that reflects a particular narrow and sectarian belief system — why let Rove, Limbaugh and the Fox regime control the terms of debate?

With regard to your second question, atheism has value for the uninitiated both as a means of unpacking the social and cultural contradictions that inform so-called religious morality, and as a means of living life unfettered by the conventions and hierarchical dictates of supernaturalism. It’s an antidote to groupthink and blind acceptance, a dynamic that has always informed my outlook on and approach to life’s complexities.

And do you think there’s any chance of a political alliance between the atheist community and the black community? Or is the black community just too hostile to atheism for that to happen?

That question assumes that there is a monolithic “black community.” Certainly atheists of all walks of life and African American “freethinkers” of all walks of life can forge solidarity on certain issues, but a fundamental wariness will remain if white atheist communities continue to maintain a paternalistic stance toward both the dissemination of atheist discourse and the critique of African American belief systems.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add — on these topics, or any other?

Defend equality vote no on prop 8Ever since the debate on Prop 8 debate and same-sex marriage emerged it has been critical for me as an atheist and a black feminist to make my voice heard in opposing the presumed solidarity of African American communities in support of the initiative. Rather than allow white atheists to control the terms of debate, black atheists of conscience can play a critical role in these and other political firestorms which highlight the disproportionate influence of organized religion in general, and Christian fascism in particular, on public policy.

Sikivu hutchinsonSikivu Hutchinson is a writer and senior intergroup specialist for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission. She received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, urban studies and media literacy at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts and Western Washington University. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (Lang, 2003) and has published fiction, essays and critical theory on gender and public space, women’s activism, culturally relevant education and African American social history in Social Text, California English, Women and Performance and local Los Angeles-based publications. She is a co-founder of the Women of Color Media Justice Initiative, the editor of BlackFemLens.org, and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

Is It Okay to Mock Marginalized Religion?

Is it ever okay to mock a marginalized religion, or the religion of a marginalized culture?

PoseidonWhen I posted my recent photo gallery of Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood, I was taken to task for being culturally insensitive. Commenter Raul, who apparently lives in the neighborhood (or at least is very familiar with it), was disappointed in my post. He felt that the attitude it expressed to Latino history and the culture of the neighborhood was disrespectful, dismissive, smart-assed, and ignorant… among other things. (You really should read his comment, as it expresses his point of view better than I can.)

This is my reply.

***

PrecitaEyesMuralCenterFirst: Raul, I do think you have a point. I get that I am something of an interloper in this neighborhood, and while to some extent that’s just the reality of neighborhoods (the Castro was a working- class Irish neighborhood before Teh Gays started moving in), I get that this is an issue, and I try to stay aware of it. I’m friendly to my neighbors (well, as friendly as I am to anybody I don’t know well); I make a point of patronizing neighborhood businesses that have been here a while; I mostly avoid the Johnny- come- lately gentrification businesses (with a handful of exceptions — you’ll get my Dynamo donut when you pry it from my cold dead hands); etc. This is not a new issue to me: it’s an issue I’ve thought about at length, and I thought about it carefully when I was putting together my “strange religious art” post. (I actually went to some trouble to have the gallery not be solely or even primarily about Latino imagery: hence the meditating alien, the Rabbit in the Sky mural, Poseidon, and the triad of Eastern religious symbols on the utility box.)

And I get that critiquing or poking fun at aspects of the culture in which one is something of an interloper can be a dicey proposition. Especially when one is an interloper from the dominant culture into a more marginalized one.

But ultimately, I don’t accept your argument.

Here’s my problem with your argument. Virtually every culture and sub-culture in this country — heck, on this planet — has its own distinct religion and/or spirituality. For most of those cultures, religion and spirituality are deeply and intimately interwoven into the culture.

Church_sign_turn_or_burnAnd many of those religions, arguably most of them, are religions of marginalized cultures. I’ve heard arguments similar to yours about African- American religion: religion is so important to that culture, it’s wrong for outsiders to critique it or mock it, to point out its absurdities and inconsistencies or try to persuade people out of it. Christian fundamentalism is largely the religion of poor people in the American South. Catholicism in America is largely the religion of immigrant or marginalized recent- immigrant cultures: Latino, but also Irish- and Italian-Americans. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Wicca. I could go on and on. Either many of the believers in these religions, or the cultures these religions are prevalent in, or the religions themselves, are the recipients of some sort of bigotry or discrimination.

Are atheists therefore not to criticize any of them?

Let me put it this way. If it’s not right for me to criticize or poke fun at any of these religions out of respect for the culture, I’m pretty much left with Episcopalianism.

And while, okay, Episcopalianism is deserving of criticism, and while Episcopalianism is pretty darned funny… that’s still awfully limiting. That doesn’t give me much to blog about. More seriously: Trying to follow this rule would keep me from speaking out against some of the worst horrors perpetrated by religion… and from pointing and laughing at some of religion’s most mind-boggling absurdities.

SilenceIn other words: The argument that critiquing a given religion is culturally insensitive? It’s essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to cut people off from pointing out religion’s absurdities: not all at once, but one religion at a time.

Now. The devil’s advocate in my head is arguing that it’s okay to critique… but it’s not okay to poke fun. It’s okay to criticize the religions of marginalized cultures… but I have to do it soberly, and with respect.

But the devil’s advocate in my head is not convincing me. As I’ve written before: Humor is one of the single most powerful, time-honored forms of social criticism we have. Humor is a singularly effective tool at spotlighting and deflating pretention, hypocrisy, inconsistency, greed, corruption, willful ignorance, and just flat-out absurdity.

Emperors new clothesAnd when it comes to religion, humor is absolutely crucial to the deflation process. One of the whole points of atheism, as far as I’m concerned, is that religion is the Emperor’s new clothes. Like I said in my Strange Religious Imagery post: People see familiar religions as normal, and unfamiliar religions as freakish and bizarre. So one of the primary points of poking fun at religion is to get people to see their own religion from the perspective of an outsider… and to get people to see that, from the perspective of a non-believer, all religion looks equally silly. (As somebody whose name I can’t remember once said: If you don’t want your beliefs to be ridiculed, don’t have such ridiculous beliefs.)

So the idea that atheists shouldn’t poke fun at religious practices that people take seriously is, once again, essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to take out of our hands one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. (Sort of like asking atheists not to be so angry.) Again, if I can’t poke fun at any religion that’s precious to a marginalized subculture, then I’m pretty much left with Episcopalians. And I only have so many jokes about golf pants in me.

LaughterAnd I don’t agree with your double standard argument at all. By all means, make fun of Judaism. Other atheists do. I have. Just last month, I referred to a specific tenet of Orthodox Judaism as a “belief in girl cooties.” In this blog, I have made fun of Judaism, Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, moderate Christianity, “so far left it’s falling off the continent” Christianity, Wicca, astrology, neo-Paganism, assorted other New Agery and woo, belief in telepathy, belief in guardian angels, Quakerism, Deism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, Baha’i, and the Christian theology from the Middle Ages asserting that the Virgin Mary was impregnated in her ear.

And I’ve made fun of atheism. Boy, howdy, have I ever.

It’s a fine line to walk, making fun of the religion but not the culture — especially since religion and culture are usually so closely intertwined. And yes, when a culture is especially marginalized, or when there’s an ugly history of bigoted and hateful mockery against it, or when you’re in the position of being something of an interloper/ guest in that culture, then you have to walk that line more carefully.

Alien meditatingWhich I was trying to do in my Strange Religious Imagery post. The post was somewhat mocking, yes; but I was trying for a gently mocking tone, even a lovingly mocking tone. I passionately love this neighborhood: it gives me joy just to walk around in it, and I show it off to visitors with beaming pride. And one of the things I love most about it is how much art there is everywhere, and how beautiful and strange so much of it is. (I don’t see “strange” as an insult, btw — most of the art I love best is deeply strange.) The point of the gallery was not, “Look at the wacky stuff Latinos in the Mission believe.” It was, “Look at the wacky stuff people believe, and the fascinating ways they turn it into art.” (Again — hence the inclusion of the meditating space alien and so on.)

I get that this post was not the most brilliant or insightful one that I’ve ever written. (They can’t all be gems.) But I do think I had a point to make — the point I made at the beginning of the gallery, about how unfamiliar religions seem weird and silly, but familiar religions seem normal and reasonable until you start looking at them closely. Sometimes I make my points in thoughtful, soul- searching essays… but sometimes, I want to take a lighter tone. And as a writer, if I’m constantly second-guessing myself for fear of offending someone — especially on the topic of religion, which people get offended about at the drop of a hat — I’m never going to say anything at all.

I do hope that people will call me on it if they think I’ve crossed a line, and I appreciate you doing that. But it seems that the gist of your argument is, “we should never criticize or mock other people’s religions, especially the religions of marginalized people, because it’s culturally disrespectful.” That’s an argument I’ve considered. And it’s one that, for all the reasons outlined here, I ultimately just don’t accept.

My Very First Orgy, and What I Learned There

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life and my sexual history in quite a bit of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please, absolutely, do not read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

OrgyMy Very First Orgy, and What I Learned There

I know. The title makes it sounds like a third- grader’s report on their trip to the planetarium. But you know, except for the third- grader part, it was sort of like that.

And I thought you might be interested to hear the story. I mean, who doesn’t like a good orgy story?

ReedMy very first orgy happened when I was in college. Surprise, surprise. I call it my first orgy, but in a sense it was my only orgy: I’ve been to a decent number of sex parties since, but this was my only “puppy pile of bodies co-mingling more or less indiscriminately” that we tend to think of as a classic, Capital O Orgy.

It happened more or less spontaneously. Or at least without any planning on my part. My boyfriend and I were hanging out on the steps of the student union, when these three girls came up to us, said they were putting together an orgy, and asked if we wanted to join them. The girls were sort of renowned on campus for being what I would now call “sex positive bi-dykes” but didn’t have a term for back then (hi, ladies, I still remember you fondly, if any of you are reading this drop me a line)… and it only took a couple seconds for me and my boyfriend to arrive at an enthusiastic Yes.

PersuasionThey said they needed a couple/few more people, and asked if we could round anybody up. So I raced off to one of my best friends, and spent half an hour unsuccessfully trying to convince him that the obviously most sensible action would be for him to blow off studying for his big math test and come to the orgy instead. (I was arguing that in twenty years he’d never remember the math test, but would always regret having passed on an opportunity for an orgy. An argument I still stand by.) Alas, my rhetorical skills failed me; so I finally gave up on my friend, and headed back to the dorm room where the festivities were being held.

There is nothing quite like walking into a dorm room with six naked people having sex together in a pile on the floor. Especially when one of them is your boyfriend. I had a brief moment of — well, “shock” is too strong a word, let’s call it “sudden adjustment” or “category error” — as the reality of the situation was rather crudely borne in on me. Then I decided, “What the fuck, this is what I’m here for,” hurriedly shucked my clothes, and joined in.

And I learned two very important life lessons: lessons that stay with me to this day.

Girl crazy coming out eroticaImportant Life Lesson Number One: I really and truly do like having sex with other women.

I’d known that I had sexual feelings about women for a long, long time. But apart from some childish experiments that could only be considered borderline sex at most, I’d never done anything about it, except swipe my dad’s Playboys and fantasize nonstop. I’d been calling myself “bisexual” ever since I’d heard the word (at about age 12); but I also couldn’t really be sure that the word was accurate. I had serious Nancy Friday/ My Secret Garden damage, and had been persuaded that having fantasies about something doesn’t mean you really want to do it. Even when you have said fantasies constantly, every hour of every day, and have had them for years. (Note to Ms. Friday: No, having sex fantasies doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do that thing in real life… but it sure as hell means that sometimes.)

This orgy was the first time I had actual, unquestionable sex with another woman. The first time, to put it crudely, that I put my tongue on another woman’s pussy. And the moment I put my tongue on that other woman’s pussy (hi there, L., if you’re reading, I remember you too, and very fondly indeed), my core sexual self- identity was transformed, from “woman who has fantasies about other women but isn’t sure what that means in her real life” to “dyke.” It took no time at all. Tongue hovering above the pussy, not so sure; tongue on the pussy, dyke.

So. That’s Important Life Lesson Number One. Pussy: good. Sex with girls: good. A lesson with very great impact on my life to this day, what with being married to a woman and all. Important Life Lesson Number Two:

JealousyI learned at that orgy exactly what, for me, jealousy was, and why I had it, and what I should do about it.

At the time of the orgy, my boyfriend and I had been having ongoing problems with monogamy. The problems being that he persistently cheated on me, and I was unhappy and pissed about it. At the time of the orgy, we were supposedly trying non-monogamy… but it was that half-assed version of non-monogamy that translates as “one person in the relationship wants no limitations on their sexual behavior, so they unilaterally declare the relationship non-monogamous, cat around carelessly with no regard for their partner’s feelings, and insist that any problem their partner has comes from un-evolved possessiveness.” (With the addendum, “And then they get hurt and angry when their partner tries to screw other people too.” But I didn’t find out that part until later.)

Needless to say, this turned out to be an unsuccessful experiment. It’s a miracle that I stuck with non-monogamy. Hell, it’s a miracle that I didn’t get the clap. I felt threatened, abandoned, anxious, insecure, disregarded, unwanted… all those things that add up to raging, festering jealousy.

But I felt no jealousy whatsoever at this orgy.

I watched, up close and personal, as my boyfriend got his dick sucked by another woman… and I was totally okay with it. I actually kind of enjoyed it.

SurpriseI did feel a twinge of something, something other than simple enjoyment and general okay-ness. Surprise, perhaps, is the best word for it. Sudden adjustment. Category error. But the closest I came to jealousy were a few passing moments of, “Shouldn’t I be feeling jealous about this?” I kept expecting to feel bad about what I was seeing… and it kept not happening.

And it occurred to me: My problem with my boyfriend cheating on me wasn’t a problem with him having sex with other people.

It was a problem with me being left out.

My problem was with him spending his time chasing other women at the serious expense of time spent with me. It was with him making major decisions about our relationship unilaterally, and then making me feel guilty that I wasn’t okay with it. It was with him blatantly trying to seduce other women in front of my face, even though he knew it upset me. It was with him spending nights with other women without consideration for the fact that I might be worried and wondering where the hell he was.

Puppy pileThis was the problem. And therefore, the orgy wasn’t a problem. The orgy was an experience we were sharing, a decision we made together, a sexual adventure we were having as a couple. None of the “being abandoned and disregarded” stuff that was going on with the cheating was going on in that puppy pile.

And that lesson has stuck with me to this day.

The specifics of what I do and don’t need from non-monogamy have changed a lot since then. Mostly, they’ve loosened up. I don’t need to be in the room if my partner is having sex with someone else; I don’t really mind if they flirt with other people when I’m around; I’m okay if sex with other people takes time away from me, as long as that time isn’t vast. I just need to feel like my feelings are being taken into consideration; like I’m involved in the decisions; like my major triggers will be worked around even if they’re not rational. I just need to not feel left out.

And I figured that out at the orgy.

So here are my study questions for the rest of the class: What life lessons have you learned from your sexual adventures? How have you applied these lessons to your life? Have any of these lessons been relevant to your life in areas other than sex and relationships? The class is now open to discussion. There are no wrong answers.

Dream diary, 6/8/09: The Facebook survival kit

First aid kitI dreamed that when you joined Facebook, they gave you a medical kit to help you survive in case of natural or man-made disaster. When I picked up mine, I thought I’d have to show some sort of proof that I’d joined Facebook, but it turned out to be pretty much on the honor system. The kit was full of expensive injectable medicines, some of which needed to be refrigerated, so there was an ice pack of liquid nitrogen at the center of the kit, which was steaming like dry ice. They had also included a vial of strychnine, in case the disaster was so bad (like a nuclear holocaust) that Facebook members might want to kill themselves quickly rather than die a slow and painful death. In the dream, I thought this was all very thoughtful of them, but was concerned about how expensive it all was and how the company would be able to sustain itself while doing this program.

I woke up feeling very baffled, almost laughing, at dream priorities and dream logic.

Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been increasingly conscious, not just of how unsupported religion is, but of how deeply strange so much of it is. You know how religions that you’re familiar with seem relatively normal, but religions that you’re unfamiliar with often seem deeply bizarre, even surreal? Along with a lot of other atheists, I’ve found that when you step back from all religion, even the ones you’re familiar with, they all start to seem pretty strange. (The Eucharist? Really?)

And ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve been noticing this strangeness show up in imagery all around me. Having a camera on me 24/7 has made me start paying closer attention to the look of the world around me generally; and it’s definitely made me start paying attention to some of the more striking and unusual religious imagery in the neighborhoods where I live and work.

I’ve been taking photos… and I thought I’d start sharing some of the better ones. (You can click on them to enlarge if you like.)

Lazarus

This is the one that started it all. At first I thought it was supposed to be Jesus, and I even had a blog post all ready to go about the artist who took the phrase “Jesus H. Christ on a crutch” a little too literally. Fortunately, before I made an ass of myself, I did a little Googling, and discovered that it’s not Jesus. It’s Lazarus.

Still an odd thing to want in your home, though.

Death

This is Death. There are many, many sculptures of Death available for sale in my neighborhood. I’m especially fond of this one, because of the owls perched at his shoulders, and the sack of money at his feet. (He’s Death. What does he need with money?)

Alien meditating

No, your eyes do not deceive you — this is a space alien, meditating. Click to enlarge — the spaceships over his shoulder confirm it.

Poseidon

This is Poseidon. Fairly straightforward, actually. But I find it deeply and delightfully strange that, in the midst of the predominantly Christian, Eastern, and woo religious imagery in the neighborhood, someone decided to include Poseidon in the mix. I also like the scuba diver at his feet.

Angry goddess

I’m not sure which Goddess of Wrath this is, but I definitely want to stay on her good side. Especially as she seems to be giving birth to… I don’t know what that is. A dreidle with the face of another god, perhaps.

Death 2

Death again. I could do a whole series of Death Images In My Neighborhood. With this one, I like the blending of the Death iconography with the Justice iconography; and the bony foot resting on the world just adds that special touch. And the fact that Death is wearing a skull around his neck is almost comically self- referential, even if it does have just a smidge of overkill. As it were. Dude, you’re Death. You’re a skeleton in a black cloak wielding a scythe that’s apparently the size of Jupiter. You really don’t need a skull around your neck to make yourself look more ominous.

Rabbit in sky

The Great Rabbit in the Sky. Borne up on clouds by pudgy, podlike little angel- demon things.

Three symbols

No one of these is particularly unusual: I just like their juxtaposition. It’s sort of like those “Coexist” bumper stickers in street-art form. “Can’t we all just get along?”

And now for my very favorite, the religious image residing in that part of our neighborhood that is our living room:

Obama candle 1

The Obama Prayer Candle.

These showed up everywhere in our neighborhood between the election and the inauguration. I’m not sure what the intent was behind them, or if they were self-mocking or serious, or what. But we just had to have one. More precisely, Ingrid just had to have one, and I griped about it and was secretly delighted. (Don’t tell her.)

Anyway. I feel like I should sum these up in some clever or insightful way. But it’s almost three in the morning, and I don’t think I have anything to add at the moment other than: Religion. Weird.

Tantric Orgasms and Sacred Sex: New Age Spirituality in the Sex Community

Kali_UnionI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog — and it’s another one that both my atheist readers and my sex readers are going to want to check out. It’s about the prevalence of New Age spirituality in the sex- positive community… and why, exactly, I think that’s so common. It’s titled Tantric Orgasms and Sacred Sex: New Age Spirituality in the Sex Community, and here’s the teaser:

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about my skeptical, materialist, atheist, entire non- spiritual view of sexual transcendence, and why you don’t need to see sex as metaphysical to see it as magnificent and meaningful.

I deliberately didn’t make the piece critical of spirituality and religion. Partly, that simply wasn’t the point of the piece: the point wasn’t to tear down the spiritual view of sex, but to offer an alternative to it. And partly, I’ll admit, it was because many of my friends and allies in the sex community have spiritual beliefs about sex, in some cases deeply held spiritual beliefs, and I was gun-shy about alienating them.

But I recently gave an interview to Greg Fish of the Weird Things blog, who read the piece and wanted to talk with me about it. And what Greg mostly wanted to know was the very question I’d been deliberately avoiding. He wanted to know why, in my opinion, so many people in the sex- positive community are so heavily invested in associating sex with spirituality and religion.

This is an attempt to answer that question.

That’s just one of the ideas I’ve come up with about this. To find out more about why I think the sex-positive community is so invested in spirituality — and why I care — read the rest of the piece. (And as always, if you feel inspired to comment on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog. They like comments there, too.) Enjoy!