From Around the Web: More Reactions to the Recent US Election

A few links from around the web regarding the recent US election:

Coode Street Podcast, Episode 291: Radio Free America. Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe discuss the US election results and what we can take from SF regarding the current political situation.  Strahan and Wolfe touch on the fact that SF’s reach may not be that great in the scope of the population as a whole.  That said, they do note the fact that SF is well suited for taking a critical look at politics.  (Here’s a link to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database listing for John Sladek’s 1973 story “The Great Wall of Mexico.”)

Philosopher Matthew J. Brown discusses the role of his discipline and how he can effect change in “Philosophy Under Trump.” He concludes that “Our politics is in a crisis of values, and [philosophers’] experience, knowledge, and skills here are much needed.”

In her recent blog post, “Nattering Social Justice Cook: Stay the Course,” SF author Cat Rambo discusses privilege, the divisions we see between ourselves and others, and what she’s doing in light of recent events.

SF writer Cheryl Wollner lists speculative fiction venues that feature diverse voices in her Luna Station Quarterly post, “Lit Mags that Love.”  Also check out her previous post, “Love and Solidarity,” in which she reminds us that “The more [women] write, the more we publicly exclaim that women’s stories matter. Women’s voices matter.”

Choosing My Words from Their Words

Over the past few days, I’ve been writing to elected officials at the federal level about the president-elect’s horrifying staff picks and at the state level about bills filed for the upcoming legislative session.  Since I’m writing exclusively to Republicans, I’ve found myself engaged in a sort of exercise in which I try to reframe the issues at hand as those that would concern them.  I’m using buzzwords such as “government over-reach” and “fiscal responsibility” again and again.

I haven’t divulged the fact that I am about as liberal as they come here in this red district in a red state.  While I don’t think I’m coming across as conservative–how could I be if I’m opposed to GOP-backed policies–I do find I’m sort of speaking a sort of libertarian language that I’m hoping the elected officials will be sympathetic to.

Which leads me to a question about where to find the balance between speaking to my audience in terms they’d be willing to listen to and the real motivation behind why I’m writing to them in the first place.

I’m heartened by the reaction to the US election on the part of my fellow liberals: we’re calling, we’re writing, we’re protesting.  But are the elected officials who need to hear us listening?  We need to stand up and speak out.  And yet in speaking out, are we using the language that will make them remotely willing to listen?

So I fear that some concerns–concerns about fundamental human rights–may get lost in the way I couch them.  And that is a problem.  As I write, perhaps I’ll find a better approach.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing.

From the Archive: History, Word Choice, and Education

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from March 2013 about higher education with a conservative slant.  Given the outcome of the recent election in the US, the topic seems more relevant now than it did then.

Last weekend at our local freethought group’s gathering, I had the opportunity to work with the older children’s group, ages 8-12. March is Women’s History month, so I wanted to present an activity that focusing on pioneering women scientists. As a lead in, the group generated a list of what characteristics someone would need in order to be a scientist: creative, smart, focused, works well in teams, and so on. Then we talked about the fact that before the 20th century, another characteristic that many people would have added would have been “a man.” A couple of the children looked doubtful: women are scientists today, so why wasn’t that always the case?

In high school and college history classes, the students will, I hope, get to discuss this question and related ideas in more depth than we could cover in a half hour: the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and so on. A couple recent news articles highlight reasons why this might not be the case.

Recently, the National Association of Scholars released “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”1 The authors of this report studied the American history classes required of all students by public universities in Texas. While they do allow that race, class, and gender has a place in these classes, they recommend placing more emphasis on other topics, including the role of the military and religion in American history. Additionally, they recommend that history be “depoliticized”; that is, de-emphasizing the “liberal” view of history as “a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice” (p. 50). Not surprising that the researchers came to this conclusion when one of the stated aims of NAS is “Overemphasis on issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation.”2

In order to graduate from a Texas public university, students must take 6 hours of American history. At present, students can take courses that focus on the history of women, racial/ethnic groups, and so on in America. Given the history of ideology and Texas public education3, it’s not surprising that a bill has been proposed in the Texas legislature that would prevent students from taking anything besides the type of class promoted by NAS4.

An article5 in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog drew my attention to FreeThinkU, a site that provides an alternative to the “liberal education” offered at traditional colleges. Courses offered by this site include “How American Are You?”, “Is Global Warming Theory True?”6 and a course that seems to be made up of the movie Expelled. This is a conservative group interested in American exceptionalism and religion. So, I’m left wondering why the site uses “free thinking” and “free thinkers”? The definition of free thinker is one who uses reason to form beliefs and one who rejects religious dogma. This content on site does not appear to reflect these ideals. It’s odd that the site’s founder would select this term when freethought is the thing he is fighting against.

By the time the children in the freethought group go off to college, what will their history class choices look like? If efforts such as these continue, perhaps they will be limited. For now, I’ll keep following the activity on the bill, writing letters, and speaking out.

3. For an illustrative example, see The Revisionaries.
4. More information on the report, legislation, and reaction here: and here:
6. Yes

Election 2016: Where to begin?

Like many of you, I spent the days after the election in a sort of shocked silence.  Wasn’t this the year the US should have elected its first female president?  Weren’t we supposed to keep progressing?

But no.  Instead of celebrating, I keep wondering what sort of legacy the 45th president of the US will leave: some horrific combination of Andrew Johnson’s racism with Herbert Hoover’s disastrous economic policies, perhaps?

Of course, I’m angry.  I’m angry at the outcome of the vote.  I’m angry at those who keep chanting the “it’s okay, we’ll all be fine, let’s all just get along” line.  I’m angry at those who call out people protesting the election of someone who represents a worldview that fundamentally devalues their humanity.  We need to be angry.  And we need to voice our anger.

We need more voices speaking out about the effects of this travesty of an election.  More voices like Caine’s over at Affinity, covering the aftermath.

More voices calling out the implications of what a vote for a bigot is: an act of bigotry.  As John Scalzi wrote the day after the election, ” If you vote for a bigot who has bigoted plans, you need to be aware of what that says about you, and your complicity in those plans.”

More warning voices.  Jean Kazez noted some of her fears the day before the election in a post in which she asks “what are the worst things about a Trump future?”  Alas, we may know first-hand.

More voices keeping us focused on what is at stake, such as Clinton’s: “And to all the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”

I’ll close with a link to a post by Alix Jules, “10 Ways My White Friends Can Help Fight Racism.”  Though I’ve seen many white friends and acquaintances on social media sites unfriend and block those who voted for Trump, I think they’d do well to follow Jules’ advice not to do so: “But how are you going to change their minds, even if just a little, if you’ve cut ties.”

So I won’t cut ties.  Instead, I’ll question.  I’ll amplify others’ questions.

It’s time to become a gadfly.

From the Archive: A Disclaimer about Disclaimers

I’m reposting some of the content from my site, Freethinking Ahead, as part of the transition to this blog.  Here’s a post from May 2015 about the purposes of disclaimers before talks.

A recent local secular humanist group function featured a talk on a subject contentious in both religious and secular circles. Before this talk, the group leader who introduced the speaker gave the standard “speakers views do not reflect the organization’s views” disclaimer. The speaker, who often gives presentations at churches about this and similar subjects, followed by expanding on the sorts of disclaimers these talks have been subject to: disclaimers sometimes accompanied by church leaders standing near the speaker for emphasis.

There is something that “goes without saying” in situations such as churches bringing in speakers that so obviously differ with religious doctrine. The audience, we’d assume, would know already that a secular humanist’s views necessarily conflict with those of Christians. Likewise, in freethought organizations, we’d also assume that given the premise of freethought—that we should weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves—we shouldn’t need a preamble to talks stating that the views don’t represent those of the group.

All this raises a question: if it’s clear to us that a speaker doesn’t represent the organization’s views, why do we need disclaimers? What work are they doing?

We typically view disclaimers as applicable to tendentious topics, often ones that can be cast in a negative light by one party or another. Disclaimers appear on television and radio stations before infomercials and programs that air unpopular opinions. For the most part, we don’t want or need whatever the infomercials try to sell us. We don’t agree with the conspiracy theories that may be promulgated by certain radio shows. Disclaimers warn us: this probably isn’t worth your time.

Except that the very fact that the media are presenting these programs means that they find something useful—positive, even—in what they’re warning us against. Granted, in the negative examples I’ve given, the rewards for the media are monetary, either directly as in the case of infomercials or through ad revenue generated by popular contentious radio programs. But this sense of something to be gained holds true for the speakers who challenge or even threaten the tenets of the organizations that allow them to speak.

By allowing the speaker an audience, the organization implies that the topic at hand is one worthy of discussion. In the case of arguments against doctrine, bringing in a speaker may be done with the intention of learning more about the other side in order to better argue against it. And yet, the idea that the argument is one worth having in the first place gives at least a little credence to the other side. In this way, the disclaimer may be an attempt to soften this credit, but it can’t negate it outright.

So should we continue using disclaimers? I think so: they’re a handy shortcut for letting us know what to expect in certain situations. Television station management, for instance, doesn’t necessarily think we should all rush out and buy whatever is flogged in the infomercials—they should provide the disclaimer in cases where not doing so would indicate outright endorsement. A disclaimer is absolutely warranted in this case. That said, we shouldn’t hide behind them. Disclaimers are useful as informative tools, but they can’t absolve us from allowing messages to go out from sources we disagree with on our platforms, even if we do repudiate them.

Which leads me to ask, is this what was happening at the secular humanist gathering? We value exposure to evidence, even if that evidence later proves to be less useful than the one who exposes us to it would like to lead us to believe. In this case, I think two things prompted with the disclaimer: one, that anyone unfamiliar with the functions would be assured that we’re not a homogenous group that holds to all the opinions presented at our functions and, more importantly, two, that we’re up for the challenge of difficult subjects. We’re a pluralistic group. As much as we’re happy to agree on a lot of topics—the need for community, the importance of service, and so on—we’re not going to agree on everything. The talk was not, as is the case with religious groups, followed by a “why this is wrong” talk outlining some sort of doctrine. The disclaimer in this case serves to remind us: the leadership trusts us to make up our own minds on this. We wouldn’t belong to the group, I’m certain, if that weren’t the case.

Reading Group: Upcoming Selections

For November, I’d like to start with Binti, Nnedi Okorafor’s Nebula Award winning novella.

And here are selections for upcoming months:

  • December: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
  • January: Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist, by Lola Robles and translated by Lawrence Schimel.  I haven’t read this one yet, though I’ve enjoyed the other titles I’ve read from the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series.

Thanks to everyone who made a recommendation.  I’m looking at other titles for February and beyond, and I hope to have the other recommendations slated soon.  Please feel free to post other recommendations here.

I’ll have the discussion post up toward the end of the month.

Free Climate Change Fiction Anthology from Arizona State University

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, published by Arizona State University’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, is available here to download for free.

From the ASU ICFI website: “Everything Change features twelve stories from our 2016 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest along with along with a foreword by science fiction legend and contest judge Kim Stanley Robinson and an interview with renowned climate fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi.”

Cookies, College, and Conservatism?

As a native Texan, I’m both hopeful for the future of my currently thoroughly red state and, alas, consistently reminded of its deep, ornery redness.  Hopeful that, as NPR reports, if Texas isn’t on the path toward blue statehood, then a bit of purpling could, possibly, happen here.  And then, some folks hold a bake sale to try to make a point.  From the Texas Tribune:

The campus branch of the Young Conservatives of Texas hosted the bake sale — in which prices varied depending on the buyer’s race and gender — to draw attention to affirmative action, which the event’s organizers said “demeans minorities on our campus by placing labels of race and gender on their accomplishments.”

The group’s actions were called out by both protests by their fellow students and a statement from UT Austin administration.

What’s particularly troubling to me is the equivalency the YCT (perhaps inadvertently) makes by comparing college admission to buying a cookie.   And the comparison between them fails, regardless.  The application for UT Austin involves considerable effort on top of years of academic and extra-curricular preparation in high school.  And then, there are no guarantees for admission.  Want to buy a cookie instead?  Walk right up, no preparation needed.

That said, if you can draw a parallel, in the scope of your own life, between the potentially far-reaching effects of attending a flagship state university with a one-off decision between chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, the you’ve probably got a lot more privilege going for you than you realize….

One can hope that spending time in the blue enclave that is Austin will give these students some perspective.

Are We Living in a Simulated Universe or Are We Reaching for a Simulated Religion?

A recent article in The Guardian reported some scientists’ beliefs that we may, like the folks in The Matrix, be living in a simulated universe. A couple ideas put forth by one of those scientists as reported in the article were, for me as a freethinker, particularly troubling.

One idea tendered in the article appears to support a sort of creationism: “That we might be in a simulation is, [NASA JPL scientist Rich] Terrile argues, a simpler explanation for our existence than the idea that we are the first generation to rise up from primordial ooze and evolve into molecules, biology and eventually intelligence and self-awareness.” While I won’t assume that Terrile himself subscribes to creationism per se (and a previous quote of his in the article refutes the need for supernatural involvement for this simulation to be possible) , I do think that the lay reader could easily walk away from the article with the idea that creationism can be easily supported by current science.

Further, the possibility that we’re living in a simulation “provides a scientific basis for some kind of afterlife or larger domain of reality above our world. ‘You don’t need a miracle, faith or anything special to believe it. It comes naturally out of the laws of physics,’ [Terrile] said.” Again, the same problem as before: the lay reader may presume that “heaven” as conceived by various religions is an idea supported by mainstream science.

To its credit, the article does provide quotes from other scientists refuting these claims. But will the reader seeking justification for believing in an afterlife and a creator take these as seriously as the quotes above? And if we do accept that we may be living in a simulation, should we view the “advanced humans” who may have created it any differently from gods? Human-generated technology will, one hopes, continue to move forward. If we (even inadvertently) deify those who create and have access to it, don’t we strip away some of the humanity that we have in common with those who live in that future?

Reading Group: November Selection

As I mentioned in my intro post, I’d like to get a monthly reading group started at Freethinking Ahead.  Please post your recommendations in the comments below.

A few things to note:

  1. Given the focus of this blog, we’ll stick primarily to science fiction, though I’m open to works of non-fiction as well as poetry collections.
  2. I’d like to balance contemporary and classic works.
  3.  Anything that is blatantly grounded in negative -isms (sexism, racism, etc.) is out.
  4. If you’d like to recommend something that is out of print, go ahead.  Just post something to let us know that’s the case.
  5.  Recommendations for novella and novelette length works are welcome.  If you’d like to recommend something longer, I may run with it for a few months out.

I’ll have November’s selection posted by the first of the month.