I’ve got your amnesia right here

I try, at all times, to be an introspective person. Because of the kind of person I am – physically imposing and unabashedly forthright in expressing my opinion – I have a tendency to overwhelm other people in conversation. I don’t do this intentionally, it’s simply a byproduct of who I am. However, because of this fact I am particularly susceptible to a particularly pernicious type of confirmation bias, wherein people who disagree with me either don’t speak up because they’re intimidated, or are shouted into silence by the force of my response. My appeals to friends and colleagues to challenge me when I do this are often unheeded, and as a result I can get a false impression that people agree with me more often than they actually do. I constantly struggle to monitor my own behaviour and demeanour, particularly when I am defending a topic I am passionate about.

This kind of introspective self-criticism is, I think, a critical component of being an intellectually honest advocate of a position. The zeal with which I practice this behaviour on myself has, unfortunately, left me with little patience for hypocrisy. There is perhaps no greater font of hypocrisy in the world today than that which finds its home in St. Peter’s Basilica:

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged thousands of young people gathered for World Youth Day in Spain to avoid temptation and non-believers who think they are ‘god.’

“There are many that, believing they are god, gods, think they have no need for any roots or foundations other than themselves, they would like to decide for themselves what is true or isn’t, what is right and wrong, what’s just and unjust, decide who deserves to live and who can be sacrificed for other preferences, taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them,” the Pope said during his first speech to the pilgrims.

“Taking a step in the direction of chance, without a fixed path, allowing themselves to be taken by the pulse of each moment, these temptations are always there, it’s important not to succumb to them.”

The kind of unbelievable hubris and lack of self-awareness it takes for a man who claims to speak directly for YahwAlladdha and issues edicts that are, by his own claim, infallible – for this kind of person to go around telling others not to succumb to the temptation to think that they are god is the most shocking and frankly ridiculous type of hypocrisy possible. Beyond simply being rank dishonesty and a complete failure to recognize one’s own faults, it is ethically disgusting for someone with as much power as the Pope has to use that pulpit to encourage people not to think for themselves.

But it doesn’t stop there:

[The Pope] said that the continent must take into account ethical considerations that look out for the common good and added that he understood the desperation felt because of today’s economic uncertainties. “The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation, but needs an ethical rationale to work for mankind,” he told reporters traveling aboard the papal plane. “Man must be at the centre of the economy, and the economy cannot be measured only by maximisation of profit but rather according to the common good.”

Now it so happens that I agree with the Pope in this particular case – our financial system’s pursuit of profit at all costs must be tempered by a strong regulatory climate to ensure that the human beings that make up the economy are protected from exploitation. However, for someone who is the head of an organization that is guilty of some of the most egregious ethical violations in the history of civilization to advocate the importance of morality and care for human beings makes one’s head spin in a most unpleasant fashion. It would be like hearing Robert Mugabe (that greasy pig-fucker) opine on the importance of transparency in government – yeah he’s right, but completely unqualified to offer an opinion.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the massive protests over the amount that the Spanish government, already reeling from financial hardships of its own, has spent on bringing the Pope to Spain to say things that he could have simply put on his Twitter feed.

Perhaps most gallingly of all, to me personally at least, was this statement:

Benedict told them their decisions to dedicate their lives to their faith was a potent message in today’s increasingly secular world. “This is all the more important today when we see a certain eclipse of God taking place, a kind of amnesia which albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity,” he said. Benedict’s main priority as Pope has been to try to reawaken Christianity in places like Spain, a once staunchly Catholic country that has drifted far from its pious roots.

Humankind is, for the first time in our history, on the verge of throwing off the chains of superstition and fear that has been a millstone around our collective necks since we climbed down from the trees. Part of this burgeoning emancipation is the rejection of the boogie man of religious faith – the willing suspension of our critical faculties when some decrepit ‘holy man’ mutters some syllables about some bit of supernatural nonsense or other. Every time we have had the courage to pull the veil from our eyes and look at the world with vision unclouded by faith, we have been able to discover something new about phenomena that were previously consigned to the label of ‘mystery’. To be sure, not every such advancement has been positive, and we have made many mistakes. However, the solution to those mistakes is emphatically not to simply refuse to examine the world. To exhort mankind to value faith is to point out how comfortable and reassuring those chains were when we were manacled to the yoke of religion.

I am overjoyed that we are denying such ‘treasures’, and I hope you are too.

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Poverty: fallen and can’t get up

I’m stepping outside my area of expertise far more than usual for this one, so I hope you’ll forgive me for my even more amateurish look at this topic. The reason I’m even bothering is because it’s been cropping up more and more in my own explorations of race, racial disparity and social program development. For those coming here for atheism stuff, I promise that I’ll have a dynamite anti-theist screed ready for action next week. Cross my heart.

On Thursday I tipped my hand a bit on this topic when I spoke about the way that prison can (and often does) lead to an increase in the very same poverty that, in many cases, was the impetus for the same crime that lands someone in jail. If our goal as a society is to reduce and prevent crime, then we should be looking at ways to reduce and prevent poverty. It is not simply a bleeding heart “think of the children” kind of approach – reducing poverty can be an act of self preservation. If we don’t pay to reduce crime, we pay to clean it up far later. I was first turned on to this topic when I read an article on Cracked.com:

I’m not blaming anybody but myself for getting into this situation (I was drunk for two straight decades) and I’m not asking for anybody’s sympathy. What I am saying is that people are quick to tell you to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and just stop being poor. What they don’t understand is the series of intricate financial traps that makes that incredibly difficult.

It details the author’s struggle to regain solvency after going broke, and the number of hurdles he had to overcome. The piece goes far beyond the simple problems of making enough money to live on, pointing out the number of things that keep you poor once you’re already down in the hole. Little things that only affect those who live below the poverty line.  Things that prevented him from regaining financial independence, even when his household was pulling in a dual income.

As the author takes pains to point out, he is not asking for sympathy or trying to blame anyone else for his situation. It is immaterial both to his point and mine. It is not really necessary to understand why someone lives below the poverty line, except insofar as we need to understand what the best way to get that person out of poverty is. The point is that once you are there, it’s incredibly difficult to get out on your own, and the problems are often things that we who live above that line don’t see or think about.

The link between poverty and crime is a strong enough one that it should be sufficient motivation for us to want to eradicate poverty. After all, crime has the potential to harm any of us, even we innocents who haven’t done anything so stupid as to put us in that bad financial shape. All the jails in the world won’t be enough to save us. And of course jails don’t protect us from future crimes – they just temporarily lock up those who have already committed crimes. I’m not sure what the state of the evidence is supporting the old chestnut that people go into jail as minor criminals and come out as major criminals, but once again it’s immaterial to my argument.

But let’s say that take a particularly hard-line view of crime and decide that more jails will be sufficient. There are still reasons beyond crime prevention to want to reduce poverty. People who have low incomes and low economic security also consume far more health care resources than those in the middle (or upper) classes. Even outside the confines of our socialized health care system, poverty creates a greater burden on the health care system. Scarce resources go to treat conditions that would not exist save for the poverty of the afflicted. Even in a for-profit health care delivery system, these are the same resources that non-impoverished people use, and drains on them hurt us.

But let’s say that you exist in even more of a vacuum than most, and you have a private doctor that tends to your every ache and pain. Let’s also say that you don’t mind your tax dollars going to the health care system (because they do, even in the USA before the dreaded Health Care Reform Act). Even then, eliminating poverty is still in your selfish best interest. Impoverished people are a drain on the economy (it is important that this not be interpreted as a judgment on people living below the poverty line – it is simply a fact). Even those that work are often mired deeply in debt, which is only good news for the lending agencies that make money off of interest – until, that is, the poor default on their loans and declare bankruptcy. This is to say nothing of social assistance programs that get a disproportionately high level of criticism and a disproportionately low level of funding and autonomy.

Poverty also has a racial component, since people of colour (PoCs) are far more likely to be impoverished for reasons that I have hinted at before. While it is easy (and fun) to blame PoCs for their condition, the fact is that poverty isn’t a product of laziness. It is, as the Cracked article so aptly puts it, “like trying to climb out of a dick pit but the ladder is also made of dicks.” There are any number of forces that pull you down deeper into poverty and make it unbelievably difficult to leave. It is a trap into which people and families can sink forever.

Poverty should require work to get out of – to be sure. I am not advocating the opening of government coffers to give a slush fund to every street person with a hand out. What I am advocating is much more simple than that – create opportunities for people to learn to do for self. Put training, education, housing, and opportunity  within the grasp of every street person looking for a hand up. Give people the wherewithal to improve their own situations through hard work and innovation. Yes, this will require sacrifice on the part of those of us not living in poverty, and this may seem unfair. What I am hoping is that they (we) are smart enough to realize that, for the reasons I point to above, reducing poverty and inequality is in the best interest of everyone, not just the poor.

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Movie Friday: A personal relationship

One of the things that Christians (particularly Protestants) like to brag about is how they have a ‘personal relationship’ with the divine. Of course, ask 100 Christians about what God wants, and you’ll get 200 different answers.

NonStampCollector points this out in his usual hilarious way:

The problem with everyone claiming to have a personal relationship is that there’s no consistency to the claims made. If Jesus was a real entity (which is a central Christian claim), and is accessible through prayer (another Christian claim), and responds to the faithful through the intercession of the Holy Spirit (another Christian claim), then we’d see a convergence of ideas. What we see instead is that the several religions of the world can’t split off of each other fast enough.

What I posit is that the only person you’re in contact with when you pray is the inside of your own head. It’s certainly easy to confuse your own conscience with the machinations of a disembodied force, especially if you’ve been brought up to accept revelation as a kind of evidence. I used to think that the voice inside my head that told me all this God stuff is bullshit was the devil – true story. I used to actively tamp down the voice of “the devil” while I was in church. It took me years to realize that what I was actually hearing was the rational part of my brain. It’s served me quite well since then.

The tragedy is that there are billions of people out there with whom one could conceivably have a personal relationship with, but who are of a different religious background. I’ve heard dozens of stories of people who are shunned from a friendship or romantic involvement because of religious differences. Entire countries have been split apart because of religious differences. Wars have been fought over religious differences.

All because we can’t get a straight answer out of our personal imaginary friend.

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Out of the frying pan…

I’ve been hinting for a while that I want to take on the topic of poverty, but have been chasing down more urgent/contemporary topics. It just so happens that at the end of this week I have a brief window to begin laying some of the ground work for what will eventually become my ultimate point. I’ve already tipped my hand a couple of times in topics I wrote back in July, but I haven’t made the point completely explicit yet. It’s not that it will be monumental or groundbreaking – I’m not trying to plant teasers as much as I am trying to apologize for not getting to it yet.

I did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario which is a city about 300 km east of Toronto. Kingston was once the capital of Canada and home to its first Prime Minister. More recently, Kingston has become the home of 3 things: Queen’s University, the Royal Military College, and a metric fuck-ton of prisons. There are 7 prisons within the municipal borders of the city, with two more in the outlying area. When a family member is imprisoned, particularly if that family member is the main income-earner, the whole family suffers as a result. I am not interested in trying to determine who is to blame – many criminals go to jail because they made poor decisions and deserve their punishment. The point is that there is ‘collateral damage’ to the family.

It was common enough to see families move to Kingston to live close to where the bread-winner (usually the father) was in jail. These were more often than not single-parent families, meaning that the remaining adult at home worked a part-time job to ensure sufficient time for child care. These were not people who were rich before their spouse was locked up, so it’s not a stretch to picture the kind of economic shape most of these families were in. The TL/DR version of this situation is that imprisonment can be economically catastrophic to young families. There is an additional issue that I have to confess I was totally ignorant of:

The fees levied on prisoners are put there by state legislatures who have found  a group few people will stick up for. But this is short-term thinking at its finest.  For example, a report on the issue by the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings.   The cost of jailing them — even for a short time — far outweighed the money eventually collected.

“Look at the cost of year in jail for just one person,” said Rebekah Diller, an author of the report. ($30,000 per year is the low end.)  “If this only drives a few people back into the system you’re already undermining any revenue you might raise.”

These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system.  Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest.  But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money.  “They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees,” said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods.   If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison.

So imagine this, if you will. Let us suppose that for any of a wide variety of reasons you were so deep in debt that you couldn’t pay your way out. Family connections cannot help you, and bankruptcy isn’t an option. You are then charged with failure to pay your debt and go to jail (apparently this is not possible in Canada, but please bear with me for the sake of argument). While in jail, your debt accumulates interest. Due to a well-intentioned but ultimately myopic “tough on crime” policy, you are charged a fee for your prison stay. When you are released from jail, you are deeper in debt than you were before you went in, but you cannot secure gainful employment because you have a criminal record.

Now of course you wouldn’t turn to a life of crime at this point, dear reader. No, you’d get extra-long bootstraps (on sale, because you’re thrifty) and tug yourself to economic freedom. But perhaps a neighbour of yours who is not quite so virtuous as you would succumb to the lure of breaking the law in order to make enough cash to feed your family and pay down her debt. Perhaps she’s not quite the criminal mastermind she thinks she is, and gets charged, this time with an actual crime. It’s back to prison for her, with the weight of a conviction on top of the still-mounting debt.

This is the experience of a number of people. Even without the initial charge of ‘being in debt’ sending you to jail, putting someone in prison can trap them in a spiral of criminality and recidivism that goes beyond simplistic explanations of the criminal mind and “gangsterism”. I am not trying to suggest that every convict is an innocent victim of circumstance; only that some are, and we can make changes to our social system to ensure that these folks have an easier chance of it. As it stands now, our prisons might be creating more new prisoners, rather than accomplishing their ostensible goal of reducing crime and protecting communities from criminals.

I bring this story up as an example of why I think we need broader, more forward-thinking approaches to crime and justice. I think it would be better to recognize that convicts do not disappear when they leave prison, and that many would, if given the opportunity, prefer to make an honest living than scramble the streets trying to avoid getting caught and sent back. Any program that increases poverty or fails to provide a clear pathway out is ultimately doing our entire society a disservice.

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Race, remixed

I’ve explained before that it would be technically accurate to refer to me as being “mixed” – I am the product of an interracial marriage. While I self-identify most often simply as black, there are times when I make mention of my status as a ‘multi’. Against the social backdrop I find myself in most often, ‘black’ conveys sufficient information for my purposes, and I let it go there. However, there are many people who, for their own personal reasons, prefer to refer to themselves as ‘mixed’.

What makes this phenomenon more interesting is the fact that “mixed” has quite a variety of meanings:

Today we see both increased immigration and rising rates of intermarriage. In 1960, less than 1% of U.S. marriages were interracial, but by 2008, this figure rose to 7.6%, meaning that 1 out of every 13 U.S. marriages was interracial. If we look at only new marriages that took place in 2008, the figure rises to 14.6%, translating to 1 out of every 7 American marriages. The rising trend in intermarriage has resulted in a growing multiracial population. In 2010, 2.9% of Americans identified as multiracial. Demographers project that the multiracial population will continue to grow so that by 2050, 1 in 5 Americans could claim a multiracial background, and by 2100, the ratio could soar to 1 in three.

Very long ago, I made specific reference to this phenomenon, noting that this may be a product more of familiarity and the re-drawing of in- and out-group definitions than it is the result of people becoming more enlightened about topics racial. Whatever the explanation, it seems as though the lines drawn around race groups is not quite as tight as it might have been once upon a time. We may be seeing the beginning of a collapse of the definitions of race – themselves largely the products of blind tradition and xenophobia rather than anything to do with human biology.

Then again, perhaps a closer inspection is warranted:

For instance, Asians and Latinos intermarry at much higher rates than blacks. About 30% of Asian and Latino marriages are interracial, but the corresponding figure for blacks is only 17%. However, if we include only U.S.-born Asians and Latinos, we find that intermarriage rates are much higher. Nearly, three-quarters (72%) of married, U.S.-born Asians, and over half (52%) of U.S.-born Latinos are interracially married, and most often, the intermarriage is with a white partner. While the intermarriage rate for blacks has risen steadily in the past five decades, it is still far below that of Asians and Latinos, especially those born in the United States.

It is fascinating to me to see how prejudice is not shared equally among all people of colour (PoCs). I may be fairly and accurately accused of focussing on issues of white and black people predominantly. As I’ve said before, this is mostly because this particular divide is one that I am familiar with on a variety of levels. That being said, it also seems as though the deck remains stacked against black people, even among other minority groups. There seems to be a hierarchy of which groups are ‘acceptable’ and which ones aren’t, although I might be reading too much into that one finding. It would also be interesting to see these statistics for Arab and Persian Americans, especially in light of the pervasive anti-Muslim attitude currently in vogue in America.

The article notes that only 7% of black people in the study identify as multiracial, which stands in stark contrast to the 75-90% estimated prevalence of mixed heritage among the black community in the USA. The authors express some mock bafflement at why this would be the case. I can give at least my own perspective on why I don’t really connect with the white side of my identity. Part of the problem is that ‘white’ doesn’t really have much presence as an identifying feature. One of the drawbacks of being the majority group is that identification as such doesn’t give people much information about you. It is far easier for me to identify those aspects of my background that are different from those around me than to focus on those things that are true for everyone.

Next, there aren’t too many people out there who see me as ‘half-white’. To the casual observer on the street, I am a brown-skinned guy with a bit of an afro. Sometimes people think I’m Indian when my hair is cut short or I am wearing a hat. Nobody says “he’s got white background for sure… but what’s the other part?” This isn’t a knock on them, or even all that unusual. It just serves to illustrate that calling myself ‘mixed’, while accurate, is not a term that resonates particularly well with my personal experience of my race. This appears to be a common experience:

By contrast, none of the black-white couples identified their children as just white or American, nor did they claim that their children identify as such. While these couples recognize and celebrate the racial mixture of their children’s backgrounds, they unequivocally identify their children as black. When we asked why, they pointed out that nobody would take them seriously if they tried to identify their children as white, reflecting the constraints that black interracial couples feel when identifying their children. Moreover, black interracial couples do not identify their children as simply “American” because as native-born Americans, they feel that American is an implicit part of their identity.

White skin, light skin and black skin also have a long and storied history with attached stigma and associations in the black community. These cultural memes manage to transcend generational lines and persist within the community for decades. While change has been happening over time, it may take many more generations before we see marriage offering widespread cultural remedy to our race problems. Until then, we can continue our work pushing the boundaries, making sure that the intellectual ground is laid for the next generations of multi-racial kids to help us grapple with the consequences of our historical segregation.

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Shades of racism

One of the things that I hope to instill in readers of this blog is the eventual abolition of the idea of the dichotomy of racist/not racist. It’s a split that enjoys a great deal of popularity in our culture despite the fact that, with only a few outliers, essentially everyone puts themselves on the ‘not racist’ side of the line, regardless of their attitudes or behaviours. As a result, the term loses any really discriminant ability and becomes merely an unhelpful pejorative.

When I talk about racism, I am talking about a set of cognitions that reduce the evaluation of a person or persons to their ethnic/cultural group at the exclusion of any other salient details. Often, when we have negative ideations about a group, we are likely to have correspondingly poor impressions of any given member of that group, regardless of that individual’s behaviour or actual characteristics. We are pretty good, as a society, at calling out egregiously negative examples of this thought process, but not so good at the more subtle ones. This is, I think, because of the fact that we are still expecting to find ‘the line’ between racist and not racist. So for you, dear reader, I offer these examples of racism on a gradient from merely bad to… well, you’ll see.

Muslim man fired from SeaTac for not shaving his beard

A Muslim man from SeaTac, Wash., who claims he was fired from his job as a security guard after refusing to shave his beard has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer. Abdulkadir Omar, 22, began working in Kent, Wash., for California-based American Patriot Security in May 2009. He said no one told him when he was hired that he would have to shave his beard, which he keeps closely trimmed and said is part of his Islamic faith.

So this one is borderline, right? First off, Muslims aren’t a race – they are a cultural group that spans a number of ethnicities. Second, this is an issue of an employer setting a dress code and one employee refusing to comply. Even under a really generous view of where ‘the line’ is, surely this doesn’t qualify as racist, right? Well yeah… but then you read this:

Omar told the supervisor he was religiously obligated to keep his beard and continued to work at the company until April 2010, when he met with a regional project manager to discuss wages he hadn’t received, according to the suit. When she saw his beard, that manager warned Omar that to continue working there he’d have to shave it and comply with company policy, and Omar repeated that he was following his religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit. Omar said other security guards at the company had beards and continued to work.

All of a sudden it’s not so clear, is it? He had been given prior permission to wear his beard, it wasn’t until he came to lodge a complaint about not being paid that it became an issue, and other people working there had beards. All of a sudden it stops being a story about a disgruntled employee and starts being about someone who was singled out for discrimination based on his ethnicity and religion.

Moving on…

NBC employee sues for racial harassment (warning: New York Post article)

A Native American NBC studio technician was tormented about his ethnicity by cruel colleagues, who strung up an Indian doll on a noose and called it his “long-lost daughter,” he claims in a lawsuit. Faruq “Peter” Wells — who worked on the “Today” show, “Dr. Oz” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” — endured the abuse after returning from a vacation and eventually quit his job when NBC’s Human Resources Department told him to ignore the problem, the court papers charge. The worst indignity came when one co-worker pelted him with the doll and barked, “Here’s your long-lost daughter!” the papers say.

So I’m sure most of us (especially those reading this blog) can point to this as ‘over the line’. This, we would say, is clearly racist. However, I’ll bet you if you asked those that thought it was a good idea to hang up a doll on a noose to torment a Native American colleague, they’d tell you that it was ‘just a joke’ and that Mr. Wells needs to ‘lighten up’. They don’t see it as racism – just a bit of office pranks that he’s just being too sensitive about.

Except that it’s not funny for Mr. Wells to learn that this is the way his colleagues see him – as a caricature based on his ethnic heritage. He’s probably proud of his heritage. Having it used as a weapon to ridicule and exclude him is probably incredibly hurtful in ways that his colleagues will likely never understand. That’s of course entirely outside the fact that he can’t be comfortable at work anymore, and not due to any action of his own doing, but because of the insensitive racism of his co-workers.

Moving on…

Black man murdered in targeted attack by white teens

On a recent Sunday morning just before dawn, two carloads of white teenagers drove to Jackson, Mississippi, on what the county district attorney says was a mission of hate: to find and hurt a black person. In a parking lot on the western side of town they found their victim. James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot, near his car. The teens allegedly beat Anderson repeatedly, yelled racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses.

This is about as chilling as a news story can get. For no reason, and completely without provocation, a man was murdered for the crime of having black skin. This is, I’m sure, the kind of racism that even the most staunch opponents of the anti-racist cause would decry as clearly racist. There is no equivocation possible here – this was a targeted murder motivated solely by race. Not only is it an unforgivable crime against Mr. Anderson, but against the whole black community of Jackson. Who knows when the next gang of white kids is going to decide to roll into town and murder them? What possible preventative action could there be, short of completely walling the white community off and not allowing them to enter the city?

So we have here a clear example of racism that pretty much everyone can agree is definitely ‘over the line’. My point in all of this is that the differences between the situations facing Mr. Omar, Mr. Wells and the late Mr. Anderson are not of type, but only of magnitude. Mr. Omar is singled out for discrimination because of his religion and his skin colour (given that other employees are allowed to have beards); Mr. Wells is singled out for ridicule because of his ethnicity; Mr. Anderson is singled out for murder because he is black – the underlying cognitive framework is identical in each situation.

Anyone who disagrees with this characterization must then provide a definition of racism that finds a way to differentiate the third story from the first two. Or, far easier, recognize that while the severity may change, racism is the same in all its various forms.

TL/DR: I present three examples of racism with increasing severity in an attempt to demonstrate that it is a unified concept, despite the many faces it may have.

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London burns: what it is and what it ain’t

So this will be a fairly ambitious endeavour for me. All of you are no doubt aware of the rioting that has plagued London for the past week. I am going to try and summarize what I think is an incredibly complex issue in the span of a single blog post. Unlike other Monday think pieces, this one is going to have a lot of links to other articles, because they’re relevant.

The riots were supposedly touched off by protest over the apparent murder of a young black father by police officers. The police claimed that the man had an illegal weapon and fired on them. Forensic investigation subsequently revealed that no gunfire was exchanged – the man had been shot twice by bullets from a police-issue weapon and the gun that supposedly belonged to the deceased, while illegal, had not been fired. In an attitude typical of police, the first instinct was to protect the officers instead of upholding the law. Outraged citizens, mostly black, took to the streets to protest, and that protest turned into a riot.

Many are trying to make this riot into a racial issue:

Operation Trident which was set up in 1998 to specifically deal with gun crime related to drug activity within London’s black community — is itself controversial among some sections of the black community. Even though Trident was set up by black activists to tackle so-called black-on-black killings, few of the police officers within the unit are black, and some see Trident as being just another way in which the police can oppress young black men who are already disproportionately targeted for criminal behavior.

Mark Duggan’s death seemed to touch a raw nerve, coming just months after another controversial police-related death of yet another black man, a British reggae artist known as Smiley Culture. A peaceful protest about Duggan’s death turned violent. From then on, the violence has escalated.

It is tempting to compare this outrage to what happened in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King trial. There are certainly many parallels between that situation and London: a marginalized and brutalized minority population who are distrusted and underserved by their government; an attitude by police of extreme racism; lack of representation in the halls of power. However, the rioting quickly grew far past anything that can be attributed to a disgruntled minority group:

The uncomfortable question since the beginning of the disturbances on Saturday night, however, has been the degree to which tensions between different ethnic communities, and wider issues of race and cultural alienation, have played a part in some local areas. The answer, observers warn, is a complex and multifaceted one, in an area where simplistic judgments can be dangerous. “Where communities are already divided along ethnic lines, there is of course a tendency to hunker down,” says Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, which researches issues of race and equality. “But what I’m struggling with is that there is so much that we don’t know. I don’t know if what goes on in West Bromwich is anything to do with what happens in Birmingham, or if the Woolwich riots were organised but the Croydon ones were not.

Most frightening to me is that there are people using the racial tension as an excuse to expand their own small-minded agendas:

Far-right groups have sought to exploit the tensions. The BNP says it will hold its “biggest ever day of action” this weekend and has published a leaflet titled: Looter beware: British defenders protect this area. The EDL claims its supporters are organising across the country and will provide “a strong physical presence, and discourage troublemakers from gathering in our town and city centres”.

While the outrage may have germinated around a seed of racial resentment, it spread so quickly and violently that this is not a satisfactory explanation. A better explanation is needed; certainly one that is better than the line of stupidity coming from Downing street, with Prime Minister David Cameron bemoaning the lack of active parenting and seeking to explain the crime by attributing it to ‘criminals’. The problem, of course, with this line of reasoning is that many of these people probably weren’t criminals before they committed these crimes. Labeling them post hoc as ‘criminals’ is circular, and therefore useless as an explanation. It doesn’t appear to be particularly accurate either:

“Some of the parents were there. For some parents it was no big surprise their kids were there. They’ve gone through this all their lives,” said an Afro-Caribbean man of 22 who gave his name as “L”, voicing the frustration and anger felt by youth and parents over yawning inequalities in wealth and opportunity. “I was on the train today in my work clothes and shoes. All different types took part in the riot. The man next to me was saying everyone who rioted should be gassed. He would never have guessed that I was there, that I took part,” he said.

Many have tried to attribute much of the anger at police to the way they treat minority group members, while others have pointed to the social system, to the power of the welfare state, to raw criminality, bad parenting… many explanations have been thrown out.

So too, it seems, has any pretense at maintaining the liberal democratic tradition:

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street following an emergency security meeting Wednesday, the prime minister noted that the addition of 10,000 police, for a total of 16,000, on the streets of London on Tuesday night and into the morning had helped curtail the violence. “Whatever resources the police need, they will get. Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they’ll have legal backing to do so,” he told reporters.

Anyone who isn’t immediately terrified by the prospect of police having unchecked powers to punish crimes is clearly living in a world of unchallenged assumptions about the credibility of law enforcement.While Vancouver police have been facing heightening criticism for failing to charge more people after the riots here, I applaud them for not rushing to judgment and waiting to have solid evidence before seeking convictions. The UK police seem to be under no constraint of legal due process, and have already arrested and charged hundreds of people:

“Picture by picture these criminals are being identified and arrested and we will not let any phoney concerns about human rights get in the way of the publication of the pictures and the arrest of these individuals,” Cameron said.

The emphasis on that quote is mine. The horror should be all of ours to share.

So if it isn’t race, or criminal minds, or just the thrill of smash and grab, what happened in London to make this happen? We may never know what the one cause that set off the ripple of rioting, and it’s unlikely that there is one cause. Likely, like any other mass spontaneous uprising (like what’s happening in the middle east), there are a variety of overlapping factors that came to a head at one point, causing a tectonic-like reaction. It seems, however, that the most fruitful avenue of explanation is to ask people on the ground what they think. From outside it is easy to attempt to explain, and you can probably find a sympathetic ear for just about any crazy theory. Until the people from the streets start speaking and telling their stories, all we can do is make a handful of guesses and wait for the flames to die down.

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Your anti-theist rage fix

Hey all,

For those of you for whom this morning’s video wasn’t enough religion bashing, you can check out my latest post over at Canadian Atheist:

There is, however, a crucial distinction between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ has come to signify an excuse for antisocial or illegal behaviour provided there is an explicitly religious justification attached. It is the most pathetic and egregious type of special pleading possible – the attempt to secure a license to flout your responsibility to your fellow human beings because you haven’t learned to properly attribute the voice in your head to your own imagination. Somehow, this corruption of a noble secular principle has filtered its way into public consciousness, where it is often waved as a battleflag in the face of any errant secular campaigner who attempts to accomplish any separation of church from state.

The post is about British Columbia’s mealy-mouthed approach to prosecuting the serial abuse and child rape happening in Bountiful. Incidentally, the writing is me doing my best Christopher Hitchens impression. Not great, but I have a lot of time to get better.

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Movie Friday: An Epiphany

This blog is getting more and more race-y and less and less religion-y. Don’t think it hasn’t escaped my notice. I approach blogging in a sort of Taoist way, letting the items that crop up in the news and in my random online pokings around direct the content and focus of my posts. I know some of you came here when I was on a particular anti-theist binge, and I hope I haven’t bored you too much.

But there’s always movie Friday, right?

I like this video a lot for a few reasons. First, it does a pretty good job of debunking the frustratingly-common question I hear from theists when I criticize the concept of a god: “why are you so anti-God?” or “why do you reject God” I don’t reject the gods, I reject the idea of them because they are some combination of incoherent and evidenceless. For example, I don’t believe in Yahweh/Allah because He is described as merciful, kind and all-powerful, a portrayal which is not reflected in reality at all. I don’t believe in the Hindu gods because natural phenomena explain all the things that are supposedly the domain of the gods. Ditto for the Greek and Egyptian and Norse pantheons. I don’t see any evidence for the Buddhist cycle of rebirth, and the deist non-interventional god I used to believe in is entirely superfluous, and so might as well not exist. To call that rejection of your personal understanding of whatever god you believe in is taking things too personally – I “reject” all gods for the same reason – I don’t believe they exist.

Second, it posits a possible explanation for why believers see non-belief as ‘rejection’ rather than nonbelief. People’s god concepts are very real to them, and DarkMatter suggests a mechanism to explain why this is true: because people’s god concepts are simply reflections of themselves. I’ve long suspected that people twist the concept of a god to reflect what’s in themselves, but there’s a bit of a chicken-egg thing wherein people are taught what their god wants, which helps inform what they believe later. This video provides some support to the idea that God is personal. As Heinlein put it: “thou art god”.

Finally, there’s a really cool question that comes up from this video that I’d like to try asking a theist. Is there anything that God commands you to believe that you personally disagree with? Are there any instructions that you find immoral but follow anyway? Are there any things you believe that you recognize are absurd but adhere to because you think your god requires it? I know this was a major source of dissonance for me when I was a teenager – so many teachings of the Catholic church were completely abhorrent to me, but I was told I had to believe them. My solution was to reject the abhorrent teachings as simply a product of human stupidity, which was the first major step I took toward leaving theism altogether.

I am fairly certain that hardly any theists read this blog (I am only aware of 2 theistic commenters), but if you get a chance to have a conversation with someone – particularly someone who is a mushy ‘liberal’ theist, see what their reactions are to the question. I’d really like to hear the responses.

Anyway, next week will be no exception to the flood of race-specific stuff. I plan to opine on the riots in England, talk about some hate crimes, and hopefully finally get to tackle the issue of poverty that I’ve been wanting to talk about for months now. Don’t fret though – I haven’t run out of anti-theist rage and will return to my old form soon.

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The barbarians have switched gates

A few months back I wrote a post about Andres Serrano’s artistic installation “Piss Christ”. In it, I made an allusion, likening Philistine knee-jerk religious reactionaries to a horde of barbarians swarming around the gates of civilized society:

The fact is that rationality has surpassed our need for imagined explanations and intuitions  to govern our society. We can govern ourselves based on secular reason – furthermore, those regions that do this more are doing much better than their less-reasoned brethren. Those who would react to an idea by trying to destroy it, and those that think it, must not be the ones to rule us. They should be thought of, in our walled palace of reasoned thought, as barbarians banging at the gates.

Not a flattering image, to be sure, but it was not intended to be. I have nothing but the deepest contempt for those who believe the way to settle philosophical disagreements is through violence or the threat thereof.

I was disheartened, therefore, to see this story in the news:

A Manila art exhibit blasted as offensive to Catholic Filipinos has been shuttered, following complaints from President Benigno Aquino III and death threats to artists and cultural officials. The Kulo group exhibit at the state-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines opened in Manila in June. However, the show began receiving complaints after recent coverage by media outlets in the predominantly Catholic nation. Originally slated to close Aug. 21, Kulo was shut down Tuesday. Specifically, complaints focus on work by contemporary artist Mideo Cruz that mixes Catholic icons with pop culture and sexual imagery and paraphernalia.

We’ve heard about the presence of the Catholic church in the Philippines before, as they have been the chief force retarding that country making any progress toward comprehensive sex education. It’s nice to know that when they’re not dooming a generation to unwanted pregnancies and STIs, they’re still finding the time to act as art critics. Once again, though, I think they’ve completely missed the point of the exhibit:

The exhibition, entitled Poleteismo or Polytheism, includes a statue of Jesus with the ears of Mickey Mouse, and a wall collage featuring images from Christ and the Virgin Mary to the Statue of Liberty and US President Barack Obama. Mr Cruz says it is intended to be about the worship of icons. “This speaks about objects that we worship, how we create these gods and idols, and how we in turn are created by our gods and idols,” said the Filipino artist, referring to the 300 years of Spanish rule that brought Catholicism to the Philippines and the current influences from the US.

Or maybe they aren’t. I remember one of the first problems I had with the RCC as an organization was its insistence on idolatry (yes – I used to be a bit of a zealot). You can’t walk into a church or basilica anywhere in the world without being overwhelmed with religious iconography, which is in direct contravention of the second commandment. Of course accusing the Catholic church of being hypocritical is like accusing a windstorm of being destructive: you’re absolutely right but it’s not going to listen to you. This exhibition calling Roman Catholicism a foreign idolatrous ideology might have just rubbed the Church the wrong way, and so they fixed on (what else?) sex to get everyone up in arms.

You know what they should have been up in arms about?

A day earlier former first lady Imelda Marcos joined the growing protest over the exhibition. She said Mideo Cruz’s exhibition at Manila’s cultural centre had “desecrated” something sacred. Mrs Marcos is one of the country’s main patrons of the art and founded the cultural centre in the 1970s when her husband Ferdinand was president. She saw the exhibition for herself and said she was “shocked” by it. “There were so many symbols of the male organ there – something sacred to be desecrated. It is sad, and it should not happen here in the cultural centre,” said the 82-year-old.

The BBC uses the word “president” a bit too liberally. Ferdinand Marcos was a brutal dictator whose bloody reign was marked with corruption, violation of human rights, and assassination of political rivals. It was only 25 years ago that a huge populist uprising eventually forced him into exile, taking with him large sums of money that he and his wife embezzled from the country they had ruled mercilessly. It is thanks to his corrupt and cartoonishly-evil rule that the Philippines is in the kind of shitty shape it’s in now. And his wife has taken it upon herself to express her “shock” at how something beautiful has been desecrated. The irony of hearing this from the lips of someone who so thoroughly desecrated the principles of democratic government made my eyes swim a little.

I am not offended by this exhibit. I was slightly offended, for example, by some of the more lurid exhibits at the slavery museum in Amsterdam. I am very offended by the depiction of black men as sexual subhuman animals in pornography. Every fibre of my being – everything I have ever believed in, the very bedrock upon which I build my life, is offended by the bullshit that is the closing of an art exhibit because you don’t like the art. However, it doesn’t matter at all what offends me – I don’t have a right not to be offended. But then again, I am a rational human being, not a goddamn barbarian.

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