Big Wooden Box gets snazzy video treatment

I was asked by Paulogia to say a few words about Answers in Genesis’s news story about my visit to the Big Wooden Box* in Kentucky. I think I said more than a few, because it turned into a half-hour complaint which he then made entertaining by turning me into a cartoon, and by adding lots of videos made by others of the interior of the Big Wooden Box. You should watch it.

*They really hate it when you call it the Big Wooden Box rather than Noah’s Ark. So guess what I’m going to call it from now on?

Evergreen and bad allies

I keep getting asked to explain my position on the mess at Evergreen College. I’ve abstained so far because I roll my eyes at both sides. But OK, here goes…and here’s the background.

A bit of background: The “Day of Absence” is an Evergreen tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. As Mr. Weinstein explained on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “in previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus — a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning.” This year, the script was flipped: “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave campus for the day’s activities,” reported the student newspaper on the change. The decision was made after students of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”

Mr. Weinstein thought this was wrong. The biology professor said as much in a letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” he wrote, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” The first instance, he argued, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” In other words, what purported to be a request for white students and professors to leave campus was something more than that. It was an act of moral bullying — to stay on campus as a white person would mean to be tarred as a racist.

Stop telling me that Weinstein is a wonderful progressive leftist. He talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk. What I see here is a situation where, for decades, students and faculty of color have borne the burden of demonstrating their significance while everyone gives ’em a thumbs up and cheers and waves little equality flags. This time, the supporters were asked to do a little more, that they take on the effort for one day of actually demonstrating their support in a more concrete way, and Weinstein refused to do that.

His basic message was that he was a shitty ally. He wasn’t willing to do one thing that his minority colleagues had been doing for years.

His letter made it worse. He tried to claim the moral high ground, that his refusal was a principled stand against bullying. Nonsense. It was a statement that you people might have an interest in fighting racism, but he had no interest in making any small accommodation to join in that battle. He was the personification of the passive white middle class that allows racism to persist, and I can understand how people would be outraged at hearing that bullshit from a person who had presented himself as supportive.

But the protesters went too far after that. You don’t get to demand someone be fired for being a shitty ally — there are people who are much, much worse working on college campuses. Protest, yes; scorn the guy, yes; take him off your list of friendly, supportive faculty for sure. But nope, it’s not a firing offense. It is also not grounds for threatening violence, or even worse, threatening violence to his students.

I’ve thought about what I would do in Weinstein’s position, and it would be an easy decision: I would have joined in the protest, and announced it to my classes for that day. Professors do have responsibilities, though, which might have made me hesitate, and I’d have had to do some calculations to figure out what to do to accommodate the students and keep the class on track, and it would have involved extra work on my part, but this is something for which there is precedent and almost certainly a procedure at Evergreen.

I occasionally have to miss class. I missed three days this past year to give a talk in China, and conferences and invited lectures happen all the time for almost every faculty member. The policy here is that I have to give written notice to my administrative head, including my plan to cover the coursework for the students. That typically involves asking another faculty member to give a guest lecture (I’ve reciprocated for my colleagues), or a description of readings or other assigned work for students to do in my absence.

Doing that is routine and trivial. I have to do it several times a year (if these turned into frequent extended absences, of course, I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do and would be getting dressed down by the administration and my peers), and I’m sure Weinstein has been in similar situations himself. If we’re willing to do that for a science meeting, I have to wonder why Weinstein couldn’t do it to support students of color for a day. Priorities, I guess.

So, shitty ally exposed. Do protest and make your opinions of the guy known. Do not, however, demand his head on a platter and harass his students. I’m more on the side of protesters, but a few of them crossed a line I can’t support.

P.S. I have a fondness for Evergreen, and when I was looking for teaching positions it was high on my list. I even got to the point of having a phone interview with their biology committee about 18 years ago, but didn’t make the final cut — I was coming from the traditional Big State College and didn’t have the kind of interdisciplinary/small classroom experience they wanted (they said, or maybe I just sucked). I was disappointed, but finding a job at a small liberal arts college right after that made up for it.

Which speech do you choose to defend, and which do you choose to shut down?

This is a fantastically good video by ContraPoints on free speech. It’s basically a dissection of what “free speech” actually means, showing how absurd the free speech absolutists are, and how appreciating the complexity of the issue is mangled by the right wing into claims that “the left hates free speech!”

The left doesn’t hate free speech. We kinda hate the cartoon version of free speech touted by right-wingers, but as ContraPoints explains, we do understand the concept very well, and probably better than they do: it protects the right of the speaker to express a controversial position as well as of the audience to hear it, and it’s actually strengthens defensible positions by exercising their defense. Minority positions need special protection because they are marginal, we have a duty to protect them from the tyranny of the majority.

ContraPoints agrees with all that. So do I. But we also recognize that a cacophony of loudly shouted views is not practical, and that giving everyone bullhorns does not protect anyone’s right to be heard. It’s a difficult balancing act. You need moderation for free speech to work. There are inherent contradictions and incompatibilities that make it impossible to be truly neutral on speech.

For example, social norms can have a silencing effect. The right-wingers are fond of complaining that calling them “racist” or “misogynist” hurts them terribly, is unfair and unkind, etc., etc., etc. But then what about expressions of racism and misogyny on the internet? Don’t you have to agree that those must also have a silencing effect?

Well, the reply goes, that’s just the hurly-burly nature of the internet. Just deal with it. You can’t change it (translation: we don’t want to change that part of it, we just want to change the part that lets you call us racists). It says a lot about these free speech absolutists in whose speech they rush to defend and promote and who they tell to take the abuse and get over it. Somehow, saying that “it is the nature of universities to promote more tolerant exploration of ideas than the shit-raging of Milo Yiannopoulos” is not accepted as an excuse by these same people.

We see a great deal of hypocrisy on this matter from the right. This video skewers Christopher Hitchens rather effectively, I think, and is maybe a little too generous to Dave Rubin, who is one of the louder proponents of alt-right bullshit while cloaking himself under the mantle of rationalism and free speech. Somehow that rationalism always expresses itself in cheerleading for racism and misogyny, but hey, that’s the hurly-burly nature of the internet.

I can think of other examples of this double standard, too: Bill Maher comes to mind. Sam Harris. Another recent instance is Carl Benjamin, proud defender of liberty, who gets called a “garbage human” by Anita Sarkeesian and is so crushed by an insult that he immediately whips around and petitions a conference to kick her off a panel. FREEDOM! Freedom for me, just not for you.

An even more cogent example: this video was temporarily taken down by a flood of complaints to YouTube by those same people who are so vocal about their inviolable right to express themselves however they want (or possibly by Hitchens idolators, who infest both atheism and YouTube, oblivious to the contradiction in that). I guess they just wanted to prove ContraPoints‘ point.

A bad Xian movie that I missed?

Mike Huckabee has been sued for illegally robocalling to plug his movie. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s a venal little spammer, but I guess he was also an ineffective spammer, because this was the first I even heard of his movie. I had to look it up. It was called Last Ounce of Courage, and you’ll never guess what it’s about.

Well, maybe you can. Imagine the most hackneyed plot of every Christian movie ever (you got it: Christians are persecuted!), and then imagine the most trivial, non-existent slight to Christianity ever (I bet you already guessed the War on Christmas), and then put them together. You got it! It takes the last ounce of courage for these feeble Christians to say the words “Merry Christmas” in the face of all these ferocious atheists who deny them that right.

Apparently, it tanked hard. I guess I’ll have to watch it in order to make fun of it once it comes to Netflix (I ain’t paying for it, that’s for sure.)

Hangout with Dr Sarah

Another hangout today? Yes! I’ll finding out what Dr Sarah of the Geeky Humanist is up to at 4pm Central time. Sarah is…

a 45-year-old GP living in England with one husband and two children. I’m a skeptic, a humanist, a feminist, and an atheist, and I love debunking myths when I can find the time to do so. I also love reading, and I’m a big fan of fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most of his non-Discworld books actually aren’t all that), Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series, Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms and most of her Valdemar books, and probably several others.

We might end up talking about fantasy novels. Leave questions here or on the youtube video if those subjects strike your interest. As usual, other freethoughtbloggers might drift in, too.

Hangout with Siggy

I’m going to be hanging out with Siggy of A Trivial Knot today at noon Central time. Here’s Siggy’s blurb:

Siggy is a physics grad student in the US. He writes about math, philosophy, social criticism, and origami. He is an ace activist best known for running The Asexual Agenda, and for analyzing ace community demographics.

If any of those topics interest you, show up at noon, leave questions here, or on the youtube chat board.

Also, I open up entry to the hangout to everyone on the FtB backchannel, so we might have a surprise guest or two. You never know.

Who should you fear?

Everyone talks about radical Islamists, and they definitely are terrible awful violent people (but remember, please: radical Islamist ≠ Muslim). But there are other ideologies to fear, like far right white nationalists and animal rights extremists. Acknowledging that they’re all bad, and that murdering people in the name of your cult belief is always wrong, which one is worse? David Neiwert has done the research.

  • From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
  • During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
  • Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
  • Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.

Lotta words and numbers there. Maybe a graph will help.

As I would have expected, the greater danger to the public is homegrown blue-eyed narrowly patriotic nativist assholes, of the kind who get normalized and treated relatively gently by the internet and media. You can kneel at the feet of alt-right idols and worship them, and everyone looks the other way; try to do that with the local imam, and you’ll find yourself in an FBI file and with tabloids breathing down your neck.

Take a look at who gets labeled as terrorists.

That’s striking. The bigger threat largely gets a pass from law enforcement, possibly because so many LEOs tend to be terroristic right wing ideologues themselves, if recent murders of citizens are any testimony. Maybe that will change, though, as it begins to sink in that far-right patriot movements are out to kill anyone who defends the government.

By now, the steady drumbeat of terror plots and attacks from the far right has begun to attract renewed attention, among them incidents involving the “sovereign citizens” movement, white supremacists, Patriot and militia movements, and anti-abortion fanatics, including some radical Christians. Their targets are police and military, Sikhs and Muslims, African Americans and Jews, power grids and transit hubs, abortion clinics and black churches and immigrant communities.

It’s a long read, but substantive and evidence-based. Read it and worry.

This is why I’m not a nuclear physicist

It’s just too scary, and radioactive materials are just too weird.

The metal rods in the top photo are plutonium. Rods can roll. These rods could roll closer to each other and perhaps produce the kind of runaway neutron reaction that killed Slotin and Daghlian. Putting a hand in to separate them could make the reaction worse because the water in a human body reflects the neutrons.
I had formal safety training, informal discussions with more experienced people, and made it a point to internalize rules of thumb. Keep pieces of plutonium separate. Abide by glovebox limitations; every glovebox has a sign with the limits of plutonium allowed in it. For solutions, keep them dilute and in flat containers. Flat/thin is safer; the closer a shape is to spherical, the less material is needed to go critical. IIRC, there were racks to put rods in if you were working with that shape of metal, so that they didn’t accidentally roll together.

Daghlian and Slotin? I made the mistake of looking them up and finding out about the Demon Core.

My version of safety rules is don’t eat sandwiches in the lab, don’t drink the mystery fluid in that test tube, wear latex gloves when playing with the nasties, the lab alcohol is not for parties, and wash your hands every once in a while. “Don’t let these two tubes touch each other, or invisible rays will instantly flash out and kill everyone in the room in slow grisly painful ways” isn’t part of the set of instructions I have to give students.

Special snowflakes on parade

Anita Sarkeesian was at a convention of youtubers this week, which sounds like a kind of hell. It’s not that I don’t think there is worthy content on youtube — this event was founded by Hank and John Green, who do good work — but that you just know it was also going to draw in the worst people on the internet. It’s an audience I would not want to hang with, and they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.

True to form, the worst people on the internet showed up to Sarkeesian’s panel, which was on the harassment women receive. They smugly took over the first couple of rows of seats, and even proudly posted videos of themselves filling the front row. Oh, boy, an opportunity for real-life harassment!

Sarkeesian fired back, and good for her.

If you google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumbass videos that just say the same shit over and over again. And like I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human. Whatever dude.

But the fact that these dudes are making endless videos going after every feminist over and over and over again I think is a part of the issue. Why do we have these conversations? We don’t just get to be online. We don’t just get to participate like everyone else.

The dude she specifically pointed at in this criticism was Carl Benjamin, who goes by the pretentious pseudonym Sargon of Akkad, who actually is a garbage human, one of the army of the worst people on the internet who rants constantly against feminism, against the “regressive left”, and who thinks any of those women who complain about non-stop harassment are “professional victims”.

Which makes it particularly interesting now that if you follow Sarkeesian’s suggestion and google her name on YouTube you will find hundreds of videos proclaiming the martyrdom of Carl Benjamin. Why, he was just sitting there innocently to respectfully listen to Anita Sarkeesian, and she bullied and humiliated and harassed him, for no reason at all! He can’t be a garbage human, because he just popped into existence for that panel, and has no history of any kind, and no reason that Sarkeesian might have singled him out.

Now, suddenly, Benjamin has decided that he is a “victim of abuse”.

And that he was publicly humiliated and harassed by Anita Sarkeesian, and that he is “triggered”.

Yeah, right, and now all of his followers are realizing that harassment is a real problem, so they’ll stop doing it themselves. The level of hypocritical bullshit from the worst people on the internet has suddenly jinked skyward. Benjamin has actually had the oblivious gall to ask the conference organizers to block her from sitting on another panel today because she called him a name. Who would have thought the man who wrote a petition to get universities to stop teaching courses on social justice could be so censorious?