On Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict — and What “Freethought” Does Not Fracking Well Mean

Please note: This blog post has a different comment policy from my usual one. It appears at the end of the post.

Other people have written about the details of the George Zimmerman case, and the verdict, more clearly and eloquently than I can. This piece does a pretty good job, as does this, as does this, as does this, as does this, as does this. But I feel that I need to get on the record about this. I may be disjointed, I may not be my usual eloquent self, but I can’t let this pass in silence.

Sometimes, I am deeply ashamed of my country. This is one of those times. The George Zimmerman verdict is making me physically ill.

I didn’t blog about the George Zimmerman verdict the day that it happened, or the day after, because I was out of town at my father’s memorial and the scattering of his ashes (and was then flying back home). And I can’t stop thinking about how I feel about my father’s death… and then thinking about how Trayvon Martin’s parents must feel. There have been moments when my grief over my father has felt nearly unbearable — and my father died at age 79, quietly in his sleep, after a long decline and years of very low quality of life from which death was a respite, of natural causes that nobody in this world could consider unjust. I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel like to be grieving the death of your teenaged child, who was hunted down and shot, whose death came from a systemic hatred and contempt of your race that you and yours have to live with every second of every minute of every day of every year of your entire life… and whose killer, in a grotesque travesty of justice, was acquitted.

I cannot begin to imagine. But it is my moral obligation to try.

It is also my moral obligation to do whatever I can to change the world, to do what I can to move this world towards one in which this would never happen, could never happen. It’s a tiny tiny start, not anywhere near enough, but it’s a start: I’ve signed the NAACP petition to the U. S. Department of Justice, asking them to file civil rights violation charges against George Zimmerman. You can sign it, too. If you know of other action that people can take, please make suggestions in the comments.

And in response to some (not all, not even most, but some) of what I’ve been seeing in the online discussions about this — largely among atheists/ skeptics/ etc., since that’s the Internet world I largely inhabit — I also want to say this:

I am sick to fucking death of the idea that “freethought” means “we have to treat all ideas as worthy of consideration, and debate them calmly and without anger, and treat people we disagree with respectfully.” Some ideas are morally repugnant. It is not antithetical to freethought to respond to morally repugnant ideas with rage. It is not antithetical to freethought to tell people with morally repugnant ideas that their ideas are morally repugnant, and that you will have nothing to do with them.

There are some issues that are worthy of calm, considered debate, issues on which people can reasonably disagree and still be friends. The question of whether a young black man should be able to buy candy at a convenience store without being hunted and killed is not one of them.

And I am sick to death of people looking at the national conversation about the George Zimmerman verdict, and acting as if “oh no, people are being mean to people who expressed views they find morally repugnant, they’re swearing at them and unfriending them and blocking them!” was the real issue here, the most important issue, the issue we should all be discussing. A young black man was hunted and killed for the crime of being a young black man, and his killer was acquitted. This is not an isolated case: it reflects the reality of millions of African Americans. And what some people really, really want to talk about is, “People are cussing people out and banning them on Facebook!” If those are your priorities, then please get the fuck out of my life. Do not comment in my blog. Do not read my blog. Do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Do not attend my talks. Do not buy my books. Go away, now.

And I am sick to fucking death of the idea that I am somehow morally obligated to host these debates — and these derailing meta-debates — in my own space.

I am not willing to host a debate about this on my blog. I am willing to host many debates on my blog, about many issues. I am willing to make my blog into a place for people to express many ideas and opinions with which I passionately disagree. This is not one of those issues, and this is not one of those times. If you have anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that what George Zimmerman did was remotely defensible, or that this verdict was anything short of grotesque… do not comment in my blog. Now, or ever. Do not read my blog. Do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Do not attend my talks. Do not buy my books. Get the fuck out of my life, now. Thank you.

“A distraction”

So, this happened.

On my Facebook page, there’s a conversation about how female inmates in California prisons have been getting sterilized, without the proper approval process, and with the women being subjected to pressure and coercion.

A commenter on my page (remaining nameless here, as people have a somewhat higher expectation of privacy on Facebook than elsewhere on the Internet), had this to say:

There are worse things to be worrying about, like where people are actually dying or losing their freedoms.

When I pointed out to him that this was, in fact, a story about freedoms being lost, and asked if he wanted his Facebook readers to troll him every time he posted about something when they thought something else was more important, he replied:

Thorny topics like sterilization and the requirement of consent for it seems like a distraction from the things that can actually improve our quality of life in the here and now or in the future.

A distraction.

From the things that can actually improve our quality of life.

The requirement of consent for sterilization is, according to this person, a distraction from things that can actually improve our quality of life. Things like the right to basic bodily autonomy, or the right to decide for ourselves whether we are or are not to reproduce… apparently, these aren’t things that can actually improve anyone’s life.

Or maybe the issue here is that the “our” in “our quality of life” doesn’t include female prisoners?

And while we’re at it: A “thorny” topic? Sterilization and the requirement of consent for it is a “thorny” topic? It seems pretty freaking straightforward to me. You don’t sterilize people without their absolutely clear, completely informed, entirely non-pressured consent. Period. What, precisely, is “thorny” about that?

Sigh.

Celebrate Same-Sex Marriage… and Demand a New Voting Right Act

Yesterday was a happy, happy day. The Supreme Court struck two powerful blows for equality: forcing the Federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, and effectively overturning Prop 8 and alloweing same-sex marriage in California. Yay!

But the day before yesterday was a fucking travesty. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, effectively gutting the act. The tl;dr: The Voting Rights Act recognized that some states have a lousy track record of actively and systematically stopping some people — most notably black people — from voting… and it required those states to get federal approval when they changed their voting laws.

That’s now gone.

So now these states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) can enact restrictive voter ID laws that placee a disproportionate burden on poor people, young people, and racial minorities… without any federal oversight. They can gerrymander their voting districts to disenfranchise poor people, young people, and racial minorities… without any federal oversight. They can set up different voting rules and regulations in different districts, making it easier to vote in rich, white, conservative districts, and harder to vote in poor, non-white, progressive districts… without any federal oversight.

And they’re going to. They’re already doing it. Within two hours of the Supreme Court decision, Texas passed a voter ID law that the Federal government had quashed after VRA mandated review.

Think this doesn’t affect you? Think again. To give just one example: You know Wendy Davis, the amazing Texas state senator whose filibuster stopped a draconian anti-abortion bill from passing? Republicans have already tried to gerrymander her out of her district. Now that the Voting Rights Act has been gutted, that’s suddenly going to be a whole lot easier for them.

This affects all of us. If you give a damn about citizens in this country being able to vote… this affects you. If you give a damn about the fundamental moral principle that citizens being able to vote, without pointless roadblocks being thrown in their way because they won’t vote the way the entrenched power interests want them to… this affects you. If you give a damn about the way that the principle of democracy in this country is gradually being chipped away at, bit by bit… this affects you.

We can’t let the happy news about same-sex marriage lull us into complacency. There is hard work ahead.

The NAACP has a petition in place already, pressing Congress to enact a new Voting Rights Act, one that the Supreme Court can’t gut on the specious grounds that the old one is out of date. Sign it. And then throw some money their way — every penny helps. And spread the word about it: tell your friends, spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, do whatever you can to raise the alarm. And get onto other ways to support them and take action.

And if you have other suggestions about hard action that we can take on this, or other organizations that are working on this, please speak up in the comments.

If you’re at all into this social justice/ intersectionality thing… put your money, or your time, or your voice, where your mouth is. Thanks.

SCOTUS, Same-Sex Marriage, and Admitting When I’m Wrong

Since I’m a big proponent of admitting when you’re wrong, I feel that I should say this today:

I was one of the people objecting to bringing same-sex marriage to SCOTUS. I was one of the people saying, “It’s too soon, this court sucks, we have to wait until we have a better court, this will set a bad precedent that we’ll have to live with for years.”

I was wrong.

And I have rarely been more happy to be wrong.

What the SCOTUS Ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 Means

Such good news to wake up to! DOMA has been (basically) overturned, Prop 8 has been (effectively) overturned! Same-sex marriage now recognized by the United States Federal government, and legal in California!

So what does this mean? It’s a somewhat legally complicated decision in some ways, and the “standing” issue is particularly tricky to parse. So here is my complex, nuanced, detailed analysis of the Supreme Court’s decisions today.

Here’s how this translates:

“Fuck you, religious right.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.

“Other people’s love lives are none of your business. Other people’s sex lives are none of your business. You have your collective head entirely up your collective ass. The fact that you think other people’s loves lives and sex lives are any of your business, the fact that you think they hurt you in any way, is just pathetic and sad. It has nothing to do with you. And it’s a sign of just how twisted and small your lives are that you want to squelch other people’s lives and loves in order to preserve your own rigid, backwards ideas about gender. It’s a sign of just how twisted and small your lives are that you want to force your ideas of a petty, vengeful god obsessed with the details of people’s sex lives onto everyone around you. So try minding your own beeswax for a change. History is going to look back and see you for the short-sighted, cold-hearted, narrow-minded bigots that you are. This country is moving forward — this world is moving forward — and you are being left in the sad, sad dust. To choke.

And queer people — go party! Have an awesome Pride Day!”

Please Sign Petition Against Nigeria’s “Jail the Gays” Law

In case you haven’t heard: Nigeria has just passed a hideously draconian anti-gay law. it makes it illegal to register gay clubs or organizations. It makes it illegal to even speak in favor of gay rights — anyone who abets a gay person, witnesses a same sex marriage, or advocates for LGBT rights is in violation of the law. It bans gay marriage, obviously. And it sets prison terms of up to 10 years for offenders — 14 years for people violating the law against same-sex marriage.

There’s a petition up, petitioning Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to not sign this bill. Please sign it. I just did.

(Hat tip to Yemisi Ilesanmi at Yemmynisting for getting the word out about this.)

Victim of Murder-for-Hire Plot a “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut,” who “probably deserved it”

You can’t make this stuff up. And you wouldn’t want to.

Via Public Shaming, which I found via FreakOutNation: Tim Lambesis, the lead singer and co-founder of the Christian heavy metal band As I Lay Dying, was arrested Wednesday for allegedly trying to hire a hit man to murder his estranged wife. Many of his fans have been defending him… not by saying, “This is impossible, he’s a good person, he would never do something like this, it must be some sort of horrible mistake”… but by saying that the victim of the intended murder was a “bitch,” a “cunt,” a “slut,” “crazy,” “annoying,” a “crazy hoe,” who “probably deserved it.”

Oh — and by saying, “God help all feminists from my wrath if I never hear another new As I Lay Dying album because of some slut.” Because opposition to murder for hire is totally an extremist feminazi plot.

Tim Lambesis tweet 01

“Still in shock about the Tim Lambesis arrest. His wife must have been one hell of a bitch for him want try and do that!” [Read more…]

Scattered Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Explosions

I don’t know what to say or do about the Boston Marathon thing. But I’m feeling a pointless urge to say or do something. Here are a few scattered thoughts.

Boston Red Cross is reporting that they have enough blood for now. If you’re not in the Boston area, donate blood anyway. It helps the entire nation’s blood supply. If you are in Boston, donate in a week or two.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (@MassEMA) tweets: If you are trying to reach friends or family and can’t get through via phone, try texing instead (less bandwidth).

@MassEMA also tweets: RedCross Safe and Well is active. Individuals can register themselvs as safe or search for loved ones at redcross.org/safeandwell

And this, from me:

I am trying extremely hard to not jump to conclusions about who did this and why, based on my pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. Many people leaped to conclusions about who was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, and most of those conclusions were dead wrong. For the record, my pre-existing beliefs and prejudices are probably somewhat different from those held by most Americans… but I’m not going to pat myself on the back for being differently prejudiced. I am doing my best to be a good skeptic, and recognize my cognitive biases and my tendency to jump to conclusions and rationalize them afterwards, and I am trying to hold off on any guessing about who did this and why, or any commentary based on my uneducated guesses, and wait until we have actual information. I’d like to suggest that everyone reading this do the same.

If you’re suddenly feeling like life is very fragile and very precious right now, and these feelings are motivating you to take action… tell someone you love that you love them. Be kind to a stranger. Donate money to a cause you care about.

And finally, because I think we may need it right now, here are some cute pictures of cats.

Comet and Houdini on my lap

Comet and Talisker on bed

Talisker and Houdini on bed

If you have pets, pet them extra today.

Comedy Does Not Win a Free Pass: Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist.

And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms — no matter what those norms are, or why they exist — automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

I thought I didn’t have anything to say about Seth MacFarlane’s performance as Oscar host that Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic didn’t already say. If you haven’t read his piece, read it now. Money quote:

It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there’s no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek’s saying because she’s so hot, is “OK.” It’s a free country, etc. But that doesn’t mean those jokes aren’t hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn’t mean they don’t make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place.

But I’m realizing — after linking to Kornhaber’s piece on Facebook and getting into depressingly predictable debates as a result — that I do have something else to say. It’s this:

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist. And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

Yes, artistic freedom in comedy depends on the ability to say or do anything, even if it runs counter to social norms. That’s true of any art form. Comedy isn’t special in that regard. And yes, of course, comedians should have the legal right to say whatever they want (within the obvious limits of libel laws and copyright laws and such).

Does this mean that comedians should get a free pass when the things they say and do are screwed-up? Does it mean that comedians — or any artists — should be exempt from criticism when the things they say and do dehumanize, trivialize, shame, reinforce harmful stereotypes, support and rationalize the unequal status quo, and otherwise injure entire groups of people? Especially groups of people who have already been hurt a whole hell of a lot, in this exact same way, for centuries?

Lenny_Bruce_arrestI think there’s a bad logical fallacy that some comedians make. They think that being transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic typically means offending people… and that therefore, if you’re offending people, it somehow automatically makes you transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic. They think that because they’re offending people and making them angry, it means they’re Lenny Bruce.

It doesn’t work that way. To be iconoclastic, you have to destroy icons. To be cutting-edge, you have to push cultural boundaries in a way that moves society forward. To be transgressive — at least, to be transgressive in a meaningful way — you have to cross lines and break rules that deserve to be broken and crossed.

And to be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to offend people. You also have to be brilliant. To be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to say things nobody else will say. You have to say things nobody else will say — and which are also the truth.

The notion, expressed in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance, that all African-Americans look alike? That Hispanics are hard to understand, but that’s okay as long as they’re attractive to look at? That women are unforgiving in relationships, and never let go of anything? That Hollywood is run by a Jewish cabal that only hires other Jews? That the nudity of female actresses exists primarily for the sexual enjoyment of men?

That’s not breaking icons. It’s reinforcing them. That’s not pushing our culture forward. It’s dragging us backward.

It’s not brilliant.

And it’s not true.

Kika posterWhat’s more: I’m sick to death of the notion that, if you critique something a comedian says or does for being hurtful and fucked up, you need to “lighten up,” “stop taking things so seriously,” and “get a sense of humor.” I remember years ago, Pedro Almodovar responded to feminist critiques of one of his movies (the critiques had to do with rape jokes, if I recall correctly) by saying something along the lines of, “Why are feminists like this? Isn’t it possible to be a feminist and still have a sense of humor?” To which I wanted to respond, “Isn’t it possible to have a sense of humor and still not think your jokes are funny?” This idea that having a sense of humor means giving all comedians a free pass on criticism for anything they say, ever… it’s bullshit. It’s a “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s a reflexive attempt to shut down any criticism — artistic as well as political or moral — before it ever starts.

Well, you don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say that comedy is an important form of artistic expression, a valuable contribution to our cultural landscape in which artistic freedom is necessary and paramount… and then say that everyone just needs to lighten up, and what comedians say and do isn’t that big a deal, and it’s ridiculous to call them to account for it.

Some social norms are there for a reason. The social pressure to (for instance) not act like a racist asshole — that’s there for a reason. It’s there because racism is bad. It’s there because, as a society, we are in the process of changing our minds about race… and exerting social pressure against racist ideas and behavior is part of how we learn to do that, and teach each other to do it.

And this idea that any violation of social norms automatically makes you courageous and transgressive… it’s childish. It’s adolescent. It’s a cheap, easy way to make yourself feel rebellious and edgy… when you’re actually squarely in the center, reinforcing the very structures you’re pretending to rebel against.