Wil Wheaton disliked it, too


I saw Star Trek Beyond. So did Wil Wheaton. I detested it and was considering walking out halfway through it…and I should have, because it got worse and worse as it progressed, rather than improving. Wheaton also disliked it, and has a long list of reasons why. I agree with every one, but I have to add another one, and it’s also one of the reasons Star Trek Into Darkness was so bad.

This is a story about a far future civilization that spans a large chunk of galaxy, that has ships that travel faster than light, with immensely powerful weapons like phasers and photon torpedos. They are deciding the fate of entire worlds.

And they always end up resolving everything with…fist fights. Men and aliens punching each other. Often these fist fights take place in absurdly improbable architecture, or at ridiculous altitudes or on machines moving at deadly velocities. Galactic conflicts and the survival of interplanetary civilizations are all settled with two guys in a slap fight on the equivalent of a 3-D platform video game. It totally deflates the scope of the story.

Superhero movies have become little more than exercises in urban demolition. Star Trek movies seem to have settled into the rut of having star ship captains hammering out their disagreements with a couple of bare-knuckle brawls.

University of Chicago dean declares war on student autonomy

You’ve probably already seen this remarkable “welcome” letter sent to incoming U of C students by Dean John Ellison. It’s probably the dumbest statement I’ve ever seen from a dean, and if you understand the usual antagonistic relationship between the professoriate and the administrative class, you know that’s a strong statement.


In this astonishingly clueless letter, Ellison promises “freedom of expression…without fear of censorship”, and emphasizes “civility and mutual respect”. These are good and necessary things. But then, in a rampant fit of hypocrisy and ignorance, he announces this:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove too controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Call me gobsmacked. Does Ellison even realize that his ideals of free speech are in conflict with his declarations in the above paragraph? Probably not. He’s railing against buzzwords he doesn’t understand, is proposing banning concepts that are essential for the free communication of ideas, and actually has a vision for the U of C that is antithetical to the whole idea of a university. In addition, he can’t do that, and I don’t mean that there is some rule that says he can’t, but that rejecting those concepts is literally impossible, without destroying the University of Chicago and turning it into an authoritarian prison.

Let’s start with safe spaces. Does Dean Ellison have a private office? Does it have a door on it? Does he sometimes meet with other deans in closed meetings? Then he creates safe spaces, and works in one. He is simply unaware of it, and takes the privilege for granted.

When the College Republicans meet on campus, is it OK with Dean Ellison of the LGBTQ club marches in and disrupts the proceedings with chants and signs (also, vice versa…but I suspect he’s more sympathetic to conservative organizations)? Or would it be reasonable to call campus security to eject the people who are interfering with the free expression of ideas by the organization? When you set aside a space for a specific purpose, you are creating a safe space to get the job done.

When I teach, I am an enforcer for certain rules of decorum — I create a safe space for learning. That doesn’t mean discussion is put on rails and not allowed to deviate from my plan. I might not allow a conversation about football when the topic is evolution, but if someone raises a hand and makes a creationist objection, which is wrong but on topic, I don’t allow the class to shout down the person (I have been in this situation, where the students are more discouraging of ideas than I am, and I have to crack down and insist that the class address the question respectfully). A safe space is a place where we focus on an issue, and we don’t allow distractions. I guarantee you that every class at the U of C is a safe space for a certain perspective, because that is the nature of teaching. Or does Dean Ellison think every classroom should be the equivalent of the comment section on a youtube video, where the loudest assholes are allowed to dominate?

What about trigger warnings? Ellison doesn’t understand those, either. A trigger warning is not an announcement that we won’t discuss bad, complex, divisive things. Quite the opposite: a trigger warning is an announcement that we are definitely going to talk about bad, complex, divisive things. A syllabus is a string of trigger warnings — we just tend not to think of it that way because we take for granted that the subjects are innocuous to us and are required to understand the purpose of the course.

But I once innocently listed human birth defects as a topic on a syllabus, and a distressed woman met with me to say she was worried she’d lose it in class — she’d given birth to an anencephalic baby a few years before, and she was terrified about that subject. She wanted to talk with me not because she didn’t want to hear about birth defects — on the contrary, she really wanted to learn about it, but she was conscious of her own emotional reaction — and wanted some clearer idea of what I was going to say and show. I told her that in fact I was going to focus primarily on neural tube defects, and that yes, I had some photos of the phenomenon, but the focus was primarily on mechanisms. It was enough that she knew what to expect so she could prepare for it, and she just asked that I let her know before I showed the photos.

I always do that. Before I show students a photo of a deformed fetus, I tell the students that I’m going to show them a photo of a deformed fetus. That’s basic empathy and respect, the very things Dean Ellison says students should expect, while insisting that they’re forbidden if they’re labeled “trigger warnings”. I’m not interested in suddenly springing a shockingly graphic image on the class to make students vomit in the aisles and weep — that’s not a strategy for good learning.

That’s a trigger warning. And I learned that lesson almost 30 years ago, when we didn’t call them trigger warnings, although it was exactly the same thing. Does Dean Ellison think we should talk about controversial topics, but we should always surprise the students with them?

Let’s talk about cancelling controversial speakers. I actually sort of agree with Ellison on this one — once a speaker is invited, there’s an obligation and commitment to carry through on it. But what’s not being talked about is the process that leads to those speakers being invited. Who’s selecting them? Who’s paying for them? What’s the purpose behind bringing that particular person to campus? There are a lot of strings being pulled behind the scenes that the students don’t see until there is an announcement in the school paper or on a poster that hey, U of C is bringing a war criminal to campus! Or an anti-war activist! Then what?

Does Dean Ellison suggest that students are not allowed to be appalled at the privileges given to speakers they object to, and that they are not allowed to loudly protest? Because that would be a violation of free speech.

Let’s imagine that the U of C invites Henry Kissinger to give a lecture. Will they create a “safe space” for him, and not allow protesters to disrupt the event? To avoid the appearance of giving a “trigger warning”, will they refuse to announce the date, time, and place of the lecture, and even that War Criminal Kissinger will be on campus? Just all of a sudden, Henry Kissinger will show up in a random class and surprise everyone by telling them about the realpolitik of murdering civilians en masse. That’s basically what they’re going to have to do to enforce the ridiculous policies in that astonishingly stupid paragraph.

But they’re not going to. That’s because that paragraph is not about policing behaviors that every responsible university does naturally, that is an implicit part of teaching and learning. It’s because he is sending a different message.

We all create safe spaces and give trigger warnings and expect that our institutions of higher learning will feature worthy speakers. It’s just that if you are part of a privileged, dominant majority, you don’t have to say it: you can trust that your values will be well represented, sheltered, and unchallenged. It’s only if you are a member of a minority that you find it necessary to be explicit and openly demand a place for your ideas; these phrases about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” only evolved because people found that institutions were unthinkingly assuming that the majority (and the money) rules, and it took hard work to hammer out room to talk about alternative views or oppression or privilege.

The problem is that now those phrases are used as red flags to tell that privileged majority that, hey, look, here’s a minority group that’s trying to carve out a place in our university — quick, shout ’em down. Silence them. Make up rules to break them apart, to allow us to openly disrespect their concerns, to allow us to shove horrible people in their faces while not allowing them to complain. This is not about encouraging “freedom of expression”, it’s about creating tools to club down anyone who opposes the accepted status quo.

And the University of Chicago has a Dean of Students who supports this regressive attitude, and who is pleased to be able to tell new students that they are disrespected unless they conform.

Shame on the dean, shame on the University of Chicago, and shame on all those people I see who consider this a good thing. Unsurprisingly, a lot of those fans seem to be people who also detest feminists and Black Lives Matter, a degree of correlation that ought also to cause some soul-searching among the progressive people who don’t see anything wrong with that letter. You’re on the side of Libertarians, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart.

You’re also on the side opposite that of thoughtful professors who are aghast at the authoritarian privilege on display.

As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value-and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Bradford DeLong has a similar view of the necessity of safe spaces and trigger warnings. He’s responding to a rather twisted article that calls Ellison’s letter an “affirmative case for a liberal conception of campus free speech”, which is not just a charitable reading, it’s an I’m-giving-everything-away-and-taking-a-vow-of-poverty reading.

Very blue

Sam Harris has recently taken it upon himself to write a speech for Hillary to give, apparently to reassure the neo-cons that she will be sufficiently aggressive in the Middle East to satisfy their blood-thirst. I already think Clinton is too militaristic, so adding Harris’s odious ideas to the mix would make her even more right wing than I can stand. Perhaps David Duke will next write a speech for her on appropriate race relations?

Iris has edited and made additions to his speech to make it a little more humane and sensible (hey, if he is arrogant enough to tell Hillary Clinton what to say, turnabout is fair play). All of her changes and additions are in blue.

It sure takes a lot of blue ink to make Harris palatable. How about if we skip the middle man and make Iris Clinton’s official speechwriter?

Y’all might want to read Sincere Kirabo’s take on Harris’s racism podcast. Are you surprised that Harris made himself look worse?

Harris only regards overt forms of racism as indication of “true” racism. This is why he demarcates racism in such a way (27:04-27:14) that categorizes racists as being “a tiny minority in our society at this point” and the remaining white population as “people of goodwill, and people of moral enlightenment.” He continued to prop up this belief by alleging whites who voted for Obama (27:32) have “cancelled their personal racism” and by using terms (27:38; 30:40) like “real racist.”

Of course this kind of rhetoric is music to the ears of all those who firmly believe intent trumps the presence of attitudes and behaviors ingrained through exposure to our cultural environment. Harris treats the widespread nature of implicit racism as innocuous and demands we reserve the label of “racist” for card-carrying Klansmen, though many of them would also deny being racist. Because, somehow, the adverse influence of racism that effects employment, housing, education, legislation, racial profiling, and mass incarceration are rendered null and void because many who are complicit with or involved in these processes are well-meaning.

Right and wrong

Trav Mamone listened to that debate with David Smalley, and thinks we both made good points. Of course we did! I agree with Smalley on a lot of things, even a majority of things.

Now maybe I’m being too nicey-nice, but I think both Smalley and Myers made valid points. I used to be all “If you disagree with me, I want nothing to do with you,” but the more involved get with the atheist movement, the more I realize we’re a pretty complex group of people. We all have our blind spots, so it’s not unusual for two skeptics to look at the same piece of empirical data and come up with two completely different interpretations. For example, Smalley once said he thought Black Lives Matter protesters blocking the road was “going too far,” but Alix Jules explained to him why that wasn’t the case. At least they had that conversation so that Smalley could understand where Jules was coming from.

He’s quite right that there’s a lot of bickering and misunderstanding going on within atheism. He’s also right that a lot of it can be smoothed over with calm, rational discussion between the two who are in disagreement. I have no problem with any of that. But there are a number of things where I do disagree strongly, and I’m not going to paper those over to be popular and friendly. Here’s where I still think Smalley is dead wrong.

  • Petty disagreements are not killing atheism. This is the human condition. We squabble over everything. Gather a small group of people together to discuss anything, from how to share out chores in the apartment to running the country, and you’ll find arguments and jockeying for advantage and people getting snubbed and others storming out in a huff. It’s routine and to be expected. If you aren’t prepared to focus on the larger goal, and get distracted by the small stuff, you won’t be effective.

    I won’t deny that people get pissed off and do horrible things like “unfriend” each other on Facebook, but to make that the big crisis in atheism when it is only the common small drama of social networking is a mistake, especially not when there are huge, substantial problems that are generating deep divides.

  • What is petty to you might loom large in the mind of someone else. There is a kind of arrogance to seeing two other people fight on social media and deciding that their disagreements are trivial and you, the wise social arbiter, will explain to them that they agree on 98% of everything else, so their dispute is unimportant. We all have ideas that we regard as central to our identity, and no one else gets to deny that. The fact that all human beings breathe the same air 24 hours a day, and that we all have this common requirement, does not negate the fact that I might like peas and broccoli, while you don’t, and doesn’t give me the right to declare that your preferences are unimportant and you had better just set aside your distaste and clear your plate. We share a love of oxygen, how can you not share all of my tastes with me?

  • Making it personal rather than public buries the disagreement. I’ve been around this rodeo too many times, and have heard this as a panacea far too often. “Don’t argue publicly, pick up the phone and call them!” No. There is a small number of people I might enjoy having a phone conversation with on a disagreement, but not many. I would especially not appreciate a phone call with the intent to forestall public expression of disagreement.

    It’s also an overt attempt to convert disagreement over an idea into a personal disagreement with a person. Telling me I can resolve a disagreement by just having a quiet conversation with one person ignores the fact that maybe my concern isn’t with who said it, but that I find the whole expressed concept repugnant.

  • No one does what Smalley suggests! This really irritates the pragmatist in me. I am the target of a lot of hate — in fact, the comments on Smalley’s podcast are largely expressions of frustration and irritation with me — and would you be surprised to learn that none of them have called me up or even emailed me to ask what I was thinking, or to chat one-on-one about our shared humanity? Not one! They just go ahead and publicly express their disagreement without consulting me!

    This is a good thing. I’m trying to imagine the nightmare world that would occur if every Youtube commenter felt a moral obligation to ring me up and have a heartfelt conversation with me before they posted their declaration that I was a cuck fag.

  • Sometimes, reconciliation is not a desirable goal. I do not really want to sit down over a beer with a racist or a homophobe. Nope, sometimes you just have to say “Your values are opposed to my values, and I do not want to associate with you.” I am also uninterested in accomplishing minor concessions. I’ve gone ’round and ’round with creationists, for instance, and you can sometimes get them to admit one argument is bad. Here for instance, is Creationist Ministries International’s page on creationist arguments that creationists should not use. Don’t use the “Darwin recanted on his deathbed” claim, for example; even Answers in Genesis says to avoid the “why are there still monkeys?” argument. These are tactical retreats, nothing more. They have not changed their core values at all, but are merely conceding that these few arguments are not effective in advancing their position.

    So when Smalley triumphantly points out that he got a homophobe to admit that one piece of “evidence” was incorrect, I am unimpressed. Maybe if you could get one person to do that a thousand times, it would lead them to question their underlying assumptions, but I’ve yet to see it happen. I have many times gotten creationists to grudgingly give up on specific lies, but still insist that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

  • One weird minor issue: a lot of the comments focus on just one thing. Myers said that that photo of Ellen riding Usain Bolt was racist! How dare he?

    This is also something I’ve seen way too much of. We white people are really good at getting indignant over being called racist, but racism itself? Meh, not as important a problem. Get over it, people! We’re all racist, we all profit from racist policies and our racist history, so the least you can do is be a tiny bit conscious of the implicit (and often overt) racism we’re swimming in.

Here’s the deal. If you’re going to talk about what’s killing atheism, you better be prepared to give substantial reasons, and not fall back on a lot of decade-old debunked nonsense (the only thing he was missing is “you’re doing it for the clicks!”), and the core of your argument better not be something as superficial as “we’re not polite enough to each other”, a claim that could be made for every movement and organization in the history of humankind.

I myself have argued that atheism has serious structural problems. It’s even a highlighted quote on Conservapædia!

The atheist PZ Myers declared on September 27, 2014, “I will make a prediction, right here and now…. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink…“[

So gord knows, it’s not as if I’m upset that someone has pointed out a problem in the movement. What bugs me is that the concern is so irrelevant and displaces activism to correct the real problems.

If you’re wondering about the context of that quote on Conservapædia, here’s the original full post. What I find interesting is that it’s another example of the Strategic Ellipsis, that habit of creationists of snipping out the bits of a quote that directly oppose their views.

I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.

I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The name of atheism has been burdened with unfair and inaccurate stigma for a great many years, and we’re now drifting into an era in which atheism will be burdened with a totally fair and accurate stigma.

But don’t worry! David Smalley will make sure we’re polite and sociable about our problems, as we sink into irrelevancy.

Now it’s the entomologists, too?

This story is so stale I ought to just scribble up some boilerplate and change the name of the discipline every time a new case comes to light. Now it’s an entomology professor behaving badly.

In February, two months after being charged with sexual assault and harassment against two students in his department, James Harwood resigned from his position as an associate professor of entomology without stated cause.

According to 122 pages of investigation documents that were leaked to the student paper, the independently run Kentucky Kernel, Harwood violated school sexual assault policies by “fondling” the two students at two conferences in 2012 and 2013. He was also found to have sexually harassed the students in each case. Three other students did not file formal complaints but testified to the investigator about other alleged incidents of sexual misconduct as recently as 2015.

In a completely expected twist, the University of Kentucky has also been working to keep the information about James Harwood quiet.

The investigation, which concluded in December, was initially kept secret. The investigator recommended that Harwood’s “employment with the University be terminated and his tenure as a faculty member be revoked.” But Harwood’s subsequent agreement with the university allowed him to resign instead of going through the lengthy process of a disciplinary hearing. This also means that the investigation won’t be disclosed if he applies to new jobs.

Well, so much for keeping his harassment history under wraps — now everyone knows. And that’s good.

So they might as well drop the lawsuit against their own student newspaper, right?

Even Rush Limbaugh is aware that people are laughing at him

His latest conspiracy theory: the Left is infiltrating farming with lesbians. I know, that’s ridiculous, and I must be getting this from one of those fake news sites, or the Onion, or something. So I had to triple and quadruple and septuple check that this wasn’t some made-up story. But I knew it had to be true when that unimpeachable source, World Net Daily, confirmed it. Here’s a bit from his radio program.

You sit in there and laugh. Okay, go ahead and laugh at it, but I’m telling you what they’re doing. They are trying to bust up one of the last geographically conservative regions in the country; that’s rural America. Rural America happens to be largely conservative. Rural America is made up of self-reliant, rugged individualist types. They happen to be big believers in the Second Amendment. So here comes the Obama Regime with a bunch of federal money and they’re waving it around, and all you gotta do to get it is be a lesbian and want to be a farmer and they’ll set you up. I’m like you; I never before in my life knew that lesbians wanted to be farmers. I never knew that lesbians wanted to get behind the horse and the plow and start burrowing.

Horse and plow? Burrowing? The lesbian farmers are all looking at you funny for just that, Rush.

I have some information for Rush: Lesbians are people. Some of them might want to farm. Some of them live in rural America. Some of them might want to be scientists, or zookeepers, or bankers, or mothers.

Also, it’s not nice to assume that everyone in rural America is as bigoted as you are, Rush.