The first step is admitting you have a problem

The director of CFI Okanagan has reached out to me with a very important request:

We have our Secular Sobriety group here in Kelowna and this is a huge deal for us as there is nothing else similar here and it is making an impact.  Unfortunately they don’t really have a steady place to meet and they don’t have the luxury of moving around like our main CFI group does.

The Unitarians are giving us a good discount at $20 per week but want to have the years rent up front so we need to raise $1040 so that we can secure the space.  I was hoping that you could post it on your blog and hopefully get a few bucks from the larger community.

This kind of stuff is precisely what the freethinking community needs to start doing: replacing religious institutions that provide help at the cost of your rational faculties. I’ve contributed last month’s blog revenues (~$60) to the cause. If you’ve got a few extra bucks floating around your pockets, won’t you consider helping them out?

Check out their fundraising page here

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I’m not dead

Just dropping a note here to say that I am, in fact, not dead. Lot of irons in the fire at the moment, and writing has been the lowest on my list of priorities. Am currently working on something rather large, so expect that in a few days. My apologies to anyone for whom this blog is a daily read for interrupting your routine.

Credit where it’s due

It’s an unfortunate reality for minority groups that they are often pressured to embody exemplary behaviour. Because of a tide of suspicion and hostility often flows against minority groups (some more than others), these groups must often model a standard of morality, fastidiousness, and earnestness that is not required of members of the majority group, simply as a matter of survival. Failure to perform in this way usually means that the entire group is punished for the (ordinary and expected) transgressions of a select few. Black folks know this as the “twice as good” phenomenon.

And so it is with some self-loathing that I congratulate the leaders of the London Muslim Mosque for releasing a statement condemning extremist violence:

Muslim leaders in London, Ont., say they “unequivocally condemn violent extremism of any kind” following the identification of two young Canadians from the city as participants in a deadly attack in Algeria earlier this year. Chair of the London Muslim Mosque, Rob Osman, said at a news conference Tuesday that “the Association of London Muslims has and will continue to unequivocally condemn violent extremism of any kind, as this is the opposite to the core teachings of Islam.”

CBC News has learned that two al-Qaeda-linked militants, Xristos Katsiroubas, 22, and Ali Medlej, 24, came from a comfortable middle-class neighbourhood in London and were former high school friends, who may have attended the mosque. The attack on an Algerian gas plant left more than three dozen refinery workers dead, the final 10 of whom were reportedly tied to gas plant piping and killed in a massive bomb blast.

Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, also spoke at the news conference, and said that “we as Muslims are as concerned as everybody else.” El-Kassem said the families of the two suspects were not known to him or his colleagues.

[Read more…]

Historical projection

One of the things that blogging has moved me to do more often is to learn about history. I am somewhat ashamed to say that between, let’s say, grade 10 history class (which was in 2000) and the founding of this blog (in 2010), I was not exactly what you might call ‘a student of history’. Sure, I picked up things in fits and snatches from newspaper articles and what I gleaned from just generally being a person who was paying attention to the world, but it would be a rare occurrence indeed for you to catch me studying history for its own sake. I have since learned the critical role that understanding history should play in our daily lives.

I think history is kinder to liberals than it is to conservatives (although these labels break down once you reach more than 30 years back). While there have been, and technically continue to be good conservative arguments to make about things, the political ‘left’ has moved to more or less occupy what was once the centre, while the right (particularly in America) has steadily moved to the extreme. As a result, American conservatives lionize Ronald Reagan – a man who was a terrible President and a terrible influence on the world – a man whose policies they would demonize as Satanic socialism were he living today. They don’t really have many other icons to boast about, nor major policy positions they can hang their hats on. They have become the less-clever Statler and Waldorf of policy – having nothing substantive to contribute, but always lobbing criticisms.

And it is a combination of their own lack of laudable history, and the same failure to learn actual history that I have been guilty of, that leads them to accept shockingly ahistorical statements like this: [Read more…]

The Need for Utopia


Adam Swift, in his article “Would Perfect Mobility be Perfect?”* posed the following question to researchers of social inequality and advocates of social justice activism: should social justice be concerned with achieving ‘perfect’ social mobility** and therefore ‘perfect’ social equality, or should we simply accept that such a goal is fantasy and instead focus on ‘sufficient’ social mobility? In other words, should those who are concerned with social justice waste our time with utopian ideals, or should we instead focus on the nitty-gritty of more realistic struggles?

Swift argues that the energy spent pining after the ever just-beyond-the-horizon goals of a social justice utopia blinds activists to the realities ‘on the ground’; that hoping for the day when all people can be free to pursue their dreams prevents activists from engaging in more grounded projects aimed at ameliorating more immediate problems.

This question, at least in academia, isn’t a rhetorical one. Many graduate-level courses (and not a few undergraduate-level ones too), especially in sociology, concentrate on the prosaic ‘nuts and bolts’ of contemporary social science research, and leave the more big-picture style thinking to advanced theory courses or to the individual student to discover on their own. For the most part, this approach is a sensible one, as social science researchers are expected to contribute to the ever-growing bodies of research that make up the vast bulk of contemporary social science literature. The rapidly expanding constellation of academic journals demand that researchers publish more or less constantly, and for many of them, their advancement and salaries depend on producing a corpus of published work that sometimes makes it seem as though modern academia is a game of quantity of quality. The demands on researchers are so great that more than a few will succumb to searching for the ‘SPU’ or ‘Smallest Publishable Unit’; researchers will report even the tiniest, most inconsequential findings – regardless of relevance to any overarching research program – if there is even the slightest chance that such a report could find a place in a journal or two. In a very real sense, social science researchers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees. In such an environment, where the minutia of our individual sub-sub-specialization can seem to overwhelm us, is it any surprise that many give up on the search for utopia?

The same can sometimes be said of social justice activism; if we need to budget our already-precious time and energy, do we choose to spend it on philosophical ruminations about the type of ideal society we wish to strive for, or do we instead quickly acknowledge that the end-goal is some form of nebulous ‘equality’, and then spend our time countering the rhetoric of bigots of all stripes, either online or in the physical world? Do we sacrifice reflection and reflexivity for the need to see ‘real-world’ results aimed at eliminating real and pressing inequalities that exist all around us? Time, unfortunately, is a zero-sum game; what we spend on one project must necessarily come from time we could have budgeted for something else.

But where Swift gets his analysis wrong is in thinking that the point of utopian thinking is to achieve the imagined end-state. Many of the foundational thinkers of modern sociology, like Marx and Durkheim, imagined utopian societies and they, like more contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls offered what they saw as roadmaps to achieving them. But implicit in each and every one of their visions was that every step towards the end-goal necessarily improved the lives of the groups of people they were concerned with helping. Marx, for example, seemed to believe that every step on the road to that stateless society would bring the proletariat closer to freedom; Rawls believed that the very act of deeply and seriously considering the shape of a perfect society from behind the veil of ignorance would grant the thinker insight into contemporary social ills. Utopian visions of the future provide us with a glimpse of the world once all the solutions provided by the utopian project have been applied. If I want to build the perfect car, or the perfect computer, or write the perfect poem, play, or script, it helps if I first have an idea of what the end-state ought to look like, because knowing that can show me the steps I need to take to get there. Many authors will say that the act of writing often includes taking unexpected turns, but I’ve yet to meet an author who didn’t have at least a sketched-out idea of the ending before they began writing the first chapter.

Utopian thinking gives us an arena within which we conceive, test, and challenge our normative frameworks; they can reveal to us the specifics of our moral codes, and can give us insight into our own problem-solving strategies. But more than anything else, utopian thinking teaches us the importance of committing to the long haul, and they remind us that in a society that values disposability and instant gratification; the diligent pursuit of deeply-held convictions has worth. Utopia is not simply about the endgame; the promise of utopia is found in the striving.

*Swift, Adam, “Would Perfect Mobility be Perfect?”, European Sociological Review, Vol 20. Issue 1, September, 2002, Pp. 1-11

** Social mobility is the extent to which a person’s chances and opportunities in life are tied to the circumstances of their birth. If a person is born into a poor family, what are their chances of ‘moving up’ in society? In a world of ‘perfect mobility’, a person’s social status and their social opportunities would be unrelated; everyone would have an equal opportunity to achieve their goals.

Writing from Privilege

I haven’t submitted any posts lately and for that I’m sorry; school has been kicking me around and my health hasn’t been stellar lately. At any rate, here’s a new submission. Enjoy!

PS: I’d like to also say how happy I am that Jamie is now a contributor the blog. Looking forward to reading more of Jamie’s posts!

Writing from a position of privilege is easy. All I have to do is put my fingers to a keyboard; after all, by almost any axis you wish to examine me by, I’m about as privileged as you can get. I’m white, able-bodied with an invisible impairment that is generally manageable (I have clinical depression and a mild anxiety disorder) cis-gendered, heterosexual, and in an age cohort that is often the most valorised in society (late-twenties to mid-thirties). Granted my income isn’t high at the moment, but my expected earnings – thanks to a top-tier education – sit comfortably in the higher-end of the income tax bracket.

Writing from a position of privilege while trying to critique and challenge that privilege is quite a bit more difficult. The most powerful force that keeps privilege in place is its ubiquity; it’s everywhere – in all aspects of my life – and when something that totalizing has been experienced for a lifetime, it makes recognizing it all the more challenging.

In writing for this blog, I have to engage in a near-constant form of self-criticism in order to identify and counter any examples of privileged language or thought processes that might inadvertently cause offense or harm. This is a good thing. It is a very good thing. It is the sort of self-analysis that ought to be the number one tool in any skeptic’s or critical thinker’s tool-kit. Pointing out logical fallacies or contradictions in the beliefs of others is a fairly simple thing to do, and many of us do it all the time. But to turn that critical eye inward is monumentally challenging – especially when doing so turns up things that you might wish were left hidden. Uncovering a false or unjustified belief carries with it the demand that it be abandoned or modified such that the resultant, edited belief can be justified. This rejection or modification has the result of affecting any number of other, related or contingent beliefs. This problem becomes magnified the more foundational the belief you are challenging actually is. Modifying one’s belief that yellow starburst are not only a great flavour of starburst, but the best flavour of starburst is nowhere near as difficult as changing, say, from believing in God to not believing in God. Most people who believe in God do so at a foundational level – that belief is the font from which a myriad moral, epistemological, and even scientific or sociological beliefs spring from, and to remove that font is to collapse any other beliefs that rely on it for support. That’s a weighty proposition.

And that’s how privilege works; those of us who have it often seek to maintain it because by doing so, we are effectively maintaining a web of beliefs that are reliant upon it. Our beliefs in large part define us, and help us to build a society that we want to live in – a society that reflects back to us our beliefs writ-large. When activists, supporters, and members of marginalized and vulnerable communities attempt to change society they (we ) are in effect attempting to distort the social mirror that reflects the beliefs of the privileged. And just like the mirrors in funhouses in crappy fairs the world over, the distorted mirrors reflect back images of ourselves we might not like to see; in the place of a ‘perfect’ and sanitized image of ourselves (or at least an idealized notion of ourselves), we might instead see in the reflections all the ways that we are assisting in the marginalization and oppression of others.

For my part, I see my efforts to confront and check my own privilege to be a work in progress; I try to scrutinize what I say (and the beliefs behind the words that spurred me to speak in the first place) and how my actions – or lack thereof – might serve to either help or hinder people who weren’t dealt the hand I was at birth. And I screw up. All the time. I sometimes lapse into speaking for others, when I should be trying to provide the space to let them speak for themselves; I sometimes slip and use ableist slurs without thinking. I don’t always get it right, but I do try.

And therein lies the greatest challenge to making people aware of their privilege; it has to be voluntary and many, many people simply don’t want to try. For those that do, the process is one that may take a lifetime. Progress on the social justice front seems to me to be an effort that is measured in generations, rather than years; it may have been almost 50 years since Martin Luther King’s impassioned “I have a dream” speech, but it has been a mere two or three (or three or four, depending on how you measure) generations. We will not know the extent of our successes or failures until the generation of children we have raised begin to raise their own and the society they build reflects the substance of their beliefs. The passing of laws that support and protect vulnerable populations are important, but they are not the end of a struggle; the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada hasn’t ended homophobia, nor has the election of Barack Obama ended racism in America. But they are both steps in the right direction. An even more challenging step might be influencing society’s privileged to take a closer look at their social status and maybe start to question it a little.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel BRAAAAAINS

So I will not be watching the foreign policy debate between President Obama and the Republican Windsock of Doom. Instead, I will be watching zombie movies and taking meticulous notes. An odd way for a politics junkie like myself to spend his evening, you might think. However, this movie watching is not simply idle recreation – it is instead an academic exercise as I prepare for the Eschaton 2012 conference, sponsored by CFI Ottawa:

Come to Ottawa for a weekend gathering of scientists, philosophers, authors, academics, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, where you can see presentations and join discussions on science, skepticism, gender issues, theocracy vs secularism, godless ethics, parenting beyond belief. Featured speakers include blogger PZ Myers, author Ophelia Benson, philosopher Chris DiCarlo, science education activist Eugenie Scott, and many others. You can even participate in a live recording of Canada’s skeptical podcast “The Reality Check”.

Saturday evening we present our gala “Night at the Museum” (held at the Canadian Museum of Nature), which includes a reception, talk by PZ Myers, and late night special events, with exclusive access to the Fossil Gallery and Earth Gallery.

The price of $275 ($225 for CFI members) includes access to the Friday night plenary session, a choice of two daytime tracks on Saturday and Sunday, lunches and snacks, plus the Saturday evening gala. (A limited number of volunteer discounts are available – email for more information.)

There is a truly remarkable lineup scheduled to speak at the two-day skeptical extravaganza (bolded names are fellow FTBorg): [Read more…]

A new experiment

Hey Cromrades,

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed a friendship I have struck up with a guy going by the handle “Rev_Xavier”. Xavier is relentlessly funny and uncompromisingly skeptical when it comes to religion, alt-med, gender, pseudoscience, you name it. After a number of really fun conversations online, Xavier and I hit upon the idea of starting a podcast.

Neither of us have hosted anything like this before, so we’re really winging it. I’m hoping that you good people will have some suggestions or feedback on whether you think this is a good idea, what kinds of things you’d like to see us take on, if there is a format you think is particularly effective, and any other random thoughts that might pop into your heads while watching this. The video, along with some relevant links, are below the fold.

[Read more…]

Classic Crommunist: I have a perfect face for radio!

Writer’s block continues apace. Not going to lie – I’m not a big fan of it. However, since the vast majority of those reading are new to the blog, and I have a fat slab of archives that stretch back 2 years, I figure it won’t do too much damage to repost some stuff that 99% of you haven’t seen before. My apologies to those who have – I anticipate being back to normal tomorrow.

Yesterday I was privileged to join Ethan Clow, the Vancouver chapter president of CFI Vancouver (the handsome devil you saw talking to Deepak Chopra) on his radio show “Radio Freethinker” on UBC’s campus radio. This is a weekly skeptic podcast that looks at skeptic issues in the news and discusses various salient skeptic topics. I was present as a special guest, along with Jakob Liljenwall, head of the Simon Fraser University Skeptics group.

We discussed, among other things:

  • Belgian police raiding a Catholic Church;
  • Organic pesticides being worse than synthetic for the environment;
  • The G8/G20 events; and
  • Confrontation vs. Accommodation in the skeptic movement

Of course Ethan, Jakob and I have similar views on things, but we had a fairly lively discussion nonetheless. As you listen to the podcast, you’ll immediately notice two things:

  1. Some of the things I talk about have appeared (or will appear, depending on when you’re reading this) on this blog, and
  2. There is a reason I prefer writing to speaking – I backtrack a lot while trying to explain myself.

So if you’ve ever wondered if I have a sexy voice, or you’re a friend of mine and you miss my sexy voice, give “Radio Freethinker” a listen. If the subject matter interests you, check it out Tuesdays at 3:30 on CITR 101.9 FM in Vancouver.

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By the way, Radio Freethinker is still doing its thing. If you’re looking for a new skeptic podcast, this is a good ‘un.

Classic Crommunist: Being Creative without a Creator

So apparently I am, for the first time in nearly two years, afflicted with a case of writer’s block. I am obviously not too thrilled about it. Here is an older post of mine, in which I get explicit about my life as a musician. I suppose it’s appropriate to talk about where inspiration comes from, in a time when I can’t seem to find mine.

A friend sent me a link to a 20-minute talk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not a big fan of the book (I got through about 25 eye-rolling pages before giving up and reaching for the remote), but I am a big fan of (my friend) Claire, so I gave it a chance. I was right with her up until 8:30 when she started in on “creative mystery” and an external, supernatural source for creativity, and then the rest was invocations of magic and self-indulgent privileged pap, the likes to which Jim Carrey would be a fervent subscriber.

I do not know if Claire’s intent was to murder my neurons; I doubt that she was trying to lobotomize me through the intarwebz. She did ask me to write about some of my thoughts on the creative process from the perspective of an atheist. I suppose I have some claims to qualifications in this regard, given that I do spend the non-science half of my life playing and creating music. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject, but first I want to address some of the themes that came up in Ms. Gilbert’s talk, which is available below:

[Read more…]