Where Have You Been?

Thomas Smith released a podcast episode about his time at MythCon. I have few nitpicks about it; the bit where he chastised people for calling the organizers “Nazis” because it didn’t help him came across as tone policing and a touch self-absorbed, and I was chuffed he didn’t mention Monette Richards when he listed off people who’d been right about what would happen. But that needs to be weighed against the rest of what he said on that podcast, and in particular an honest-to-goodness ultimatum he issued to Mythicist Milwaukee: change and disavow your problematic board members, or he’ll do everything he can to discourage people from their events. Never thought I’d hear something like that from him.

The kudos and love he’s getting right now are deserved. His performance at MythCon was the best anyone could hope for, based on the few scraps I’m seeing. And yet, those kudos come with a bitter taste. Steve Shives beat me to the reason why, and Smith himself has suggested he agrees with Shives, so in some sense what follows is redundant. But it’s a point that needs emphasis and repetition until it fully sinks in. [Read more…]

Mystery Cults and the Alt-Right

The chain of referrers on this is longer than the paragraph I wanted to share: via Salty Current and Josh Marshall, I was alerted to this tidbit of wisdom by John Herrman.

It is worth noting that the platforms most flamboyantly dedicated to a borrowed idea of free speech and assembly are the same ones that have struggled most intensely with groups of users who seek to organize and disrupt their platforms. A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: It engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.

I’m more in the camp of Josh Marshall than Herrman, though.

And yet, I think the Times article by John Herrman basically misses the mark in thinking that racist groups’ reaction to this banning was planned or showed some deeper understanding or even sympathy with the authoritarian nature of these platforms. […]

The mix of provocation, harassment and trolling is a major part and in some ways the totality of what the digital far-right is about. That’s why racist activists are so eager to give speeches at Berkeley. They get a reaction. Fights start. They create polarization. If some racist freak holds that speech is his backyard or basement with ten friends, who cares? No one does. No one even knows … That is truly the unique hell of online racist provocateurs: no one even knowing they’re ranting. A new version of Twitter for racists only will be the digital equivalent of the same thing.

You can’t change culture without engaging in it on some level, and you’re in the culture-changing business if you want to move from being a fringe to an accepted part of culture. Hence the focus on dog whistles and the worship of memesas a way of wedging fringe ideas into popular culture.

Kek, in the Alt-Right’s telling, is the “deity” of the semi-ironic “religion” the white nationalist movement has created for itself online — partly for amusement, as a way to troll liberals and self-righteous conservatives — and to make a political point. He is a god of chaos and darkness, with the head of a frog, the source of their memetic “magic,” to whom the Alt-Right and Donald Trump owe their success, according to their own explanations.

In many ways, Kek is the apotheosis of the bizarre alternative reality of the Alt-Right: at once absurdly juvenile, transgressive and racist, as well as reflecting a deeper, pseudo-intellectual purpose that lends it an appeal to young ideologues who fancy themselves deep thinkers. It dwells in that murky area they often occupy, between satire, irony, mockery, and serious ideology; Kek can be both a big joke to pull on liberals and a reflection of the Alt-Right’s own self-image as serious agents of chaos in modern society.

Most of all, Kek has become a kind of tribal marker of the Alt-Right: Its meaning obscure and unavailable to ordinary people — “normies,” in their lingo — referencing Kek is most often just a way of signaling to fellow conversants online that the writer embraces the principles of chaos and destruction that are central to Alt-Right thinking.

This combination of religious “mystery cults” and secular bigotry is potent and tough to scrub away. Fortunately, it can be diluted.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…

The problem with going more abstract, as Lee Atwater famously suggested, is that the emotional punch of the original is watered down, and in the natural drift of language you can lose control of where it goes. “States’ Rights” was a code-word for defending bigotry, but since then other interest groups have started using it for their own ends. At the same time, social justice advocates work hard to educate the public on what the dog whistle really means, changing it from covert to overt. Pepe the Frog is a great example of this. The memes that don’t escape into popular culture, such as the rebranding of the OK symbol, aren’t of much concern because “no one even knows” they exist and they fail to “disrupt [public] platforms.”

But if this bigotry has strong religious connotations, I have to ask: where’s the atheist community in all this? Shouldn’t we be leading the charge against this attempt to remake society in a racist image, due to our familiarity with the underlying tactics?

Dictionary Atheism and Morality

I’m quite late to the party, I see. Hopefully I can make up for it with a slightly different angle.

There are no shortage of atheists that fetishize the dictionary. “It’s just a lack of belief, nothing more!” they cry, “there’s no moral code attached to it!”

Bullshit. If there is no moral system, why then are dictionary atheists so insistent on being atheist?

Moral codes are proscriptive, while assertions and bare facts are descriptive. One tells us how the world ought to behave, the others how the world is or might be. This can get confusing, I’ll admit. Science is supposed to be in the “descriptive” bin, yet scientists make predictions about how the world ought to behave. It sounds very proscriptive, but what happens when reality and your statement conflict? Say I calculate the trajectory of an asteroid via Newtonian Mechanics, but observe it wanders off my predicted path. Which of these two must change to resolve the contradiction, reality or Newtonian Mechanics? Surely the latter, and that reveals it and similar scientific laws as a descriptive item: if the description is wrong, or in conflict with reality, it gets tossed.

But this division is further tested by things like evolution. If we ever did find find something that broke that theory, like a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian era, we are not justified in tossing evolution. The weight of all other evidence in favor of evolution makes it more likely we got something wrong then that evolution should be dust-binned. We again seem to be proscriptive.

That pile of evidence is our ticket back to descriptiveness, though. One bit of counter-evidence may fall flat, but a giant enough heap would not. There is only a finite amount of it favoring evolution, so in theory I can still pile up more counter-evidence and be forced to give that theory up in favor of reality, even if that’s impossible in practice.

No amount of evidential persuasion can force me to give up on a moral, in contrast. This too may seem strange; it may not be moral to kill a person, but wouldn’t it be moral to kill Hitler? The information we have about a scenario can dramatically shift the moral action.

But, importantly, it doesn’t shift the moral code. No sane moral system will hold you accountable for honest ignorance, and even the non-sane ones provide an “out” via (for instance) penitence or another loop on the karmic wheel. Instead, you apply the moral code to the knowledge you do have, a code that does not change over time. Slavery was just as bad in the past as it is now, what’s changed instead is us. We as moral agents have progressed, through education, reason, and the occasional violent rebellion. The moral code hasn’t changed, we have adjusted our reality to better match it. Again, we find morality is proscriptive.

So what are we to make of atheists that argue they can only follow the evidence? “Do not hold false beliefs” is proscriptive, because it tells us what to do, yet it’s a necessary assumption behind “I cannot believe in the gods, because there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.” Having a moral code is an essential prerequisite for every atheist who isn’t that way out of ignorance, and that ignorance dissipates within seconds of hearing someone attempt to describe what a god is.

But… is it true that black people deserve to be paid less than whites? Is it true that women who dress provocatively deserved to be raped? Is it true that the poor are lazy and shiftless? All it takes to believe in any form of social justice is the moral “do not hold false beliefs” and evidence to support “claim X is false.” The minimal moral system for a hardline dictionary atheist is no different then the minimal moral system of a feminist!

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t toss extra morals into the mix. Social justice types would quickly add “allowing false beliefs to persist in others is wrong,” but so too would the dictionary atheist. How else could they justify trying to persuade others away from religion? No doubt those atheists would disavow any additional morals, but so too could a feminist. That one extra premise is enough to justify actively changing the culture we live in.

There might be other differences in the moral code between dictionary atheists and those promoting social justice, but it amounts to little more than window dressing; not only does being an atheist require a moral code, even the “dictionary” brand, the smallest possible code also supports feminists and others engaging in social justice.

So knock off the “atheism has no moral code” crap. It just ain’t true.