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Politics, Secularism, Social Justice

Censorship has crossed over. The left reaps the whirlwind.

June 30, 2017
WOODLAND HILLS, CA - JUNE 02:  Kathy Griffin  speaks during a press conference at The Bloom Firm on June 2, 2017 in Woodland Hills, California.  Griffin is holding the press conference after a controversial photoshoot where she was holding a bloodied mask depicting President Donald Trump and to address alleged bullying by the Trump family.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Those who only a number of years ago were touting the merits of deplatforming offensive speakers, using mob action to shame wrongthinkers or get them fired from their jobs are now reaping the whirlwind. Offense has crossed over, and is serving a new master.

But a moral position on speech with the defense of the oppressed at its core couldn’t cross over, surely?  Of course it can. Ideas can and do often cross over in small units, disassociated from their origins. If you don’t believe me, just look at one of the perfect analogies of this phenomenon in the natural world – the curious case of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics were first discovered in the formal sense in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, and first synthesized in a more massive scale in 1942 by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey and Edward Abraham. But with their incredible, paradigm-changing success, the general trend of antibiotic resistance came to be understood as inevitable. Naturally, as antibiotics were so effective at killing bacteria, over time the few that mutated to possess resistance would be the ones left behind. The rise of such bacteria was an inevitable consequence of Darwinain evolution, a consequence we feel all too acutely now as traditional antibiotics become less and less effective.

But at that time, perhaps nobody could’ve predicted one of the methods by which such bacteria could become resistant – the passing of resistance factors from one bacteria to another through horizontal transfer via transposons, plasmids or viruses.  Bacteria can pass the genetic material for resistance alone from one to another, including completely different kinds of bacteria.

In this sense, the overexposure of one strand of bacteria to antibiotics becomes the advantages acquired by another strain, and the danger to our health incurred in one area becomes incurred in another. Overuse of antibiotics is no longer a limited problem, it becomes a universal problem. We need not wait for all bacteria to spontaneously mutate into more virulent forms. The virulence now crosses over, and without a renewed public effort towards the development of new antibiotics, soon it will be ubiquitous, our health defenses set back over a hundred years.

Such is the reality of information, be it genetic, linguistic, or ideological. In any space of survival, as Dawkins described in ‘The Selfish Gene’, it is the individual unit that is vying for survival, and without any concept of consciousness at all, it will collaborate with other snippets if it helps itself propagate in whatever relevant environment it happens to find itself competing in.

So therefore it should be no surprise, that certain cultural conventions – acting just as Dawkins described them in “The Selfish Gene”, where the concept of the meme was first codified – are now crossing over from left to right and back again in our politics and discourse. Much for the worse.

Over the past 4 to 5 years or so, certain conventions regarding speech and offense became more and more common and ubiquitous among the left. A new memetic complex of postmodernism, critical race theory, gender theory, and identity politics seemed to merge, breed, and finally re-emerge into the zeitgeist as the modern ideology of so-called Social Justice, along with a new, more muscular brand of political correctness not seen since the 90s, now more fully armed by the organizing power of the internet.

For those of us just old enough to have not spent our entire youth in the bubble, the results were surprising.  Speakers deemed too offensive, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bill Maher, were subject to constant attempts at forcing retractions of their invitations.  Nobel prize-winning scientists making self-aware satirizing jokes about sexism were not given groans for poor taste, their employment was unapologetically terminated.  A rocket scientist who successfully landed a spaceship on a comet was shamed in public and reduced to tears for wearing a tasteless shirt.  Offensive speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose words were deemed to be doing violence, was met with actual, riotous window-shattering violence.  Maoist struggle sessions were mandated for defending the right to wear offensive halloween costumes at Yale.  Just recently at Evergreen State University, a professor who did not agree with a request that certain students not be made to leave campus on the basis of their skin color was met by a mob that barricaded professors in their own offices and wouldn’t even permit them to go to the bathroom by themselves.

Some people concerned about these events, I among them, warned that such trends would be dangerous, because such trends can and do cross over. Such postmodernist conventions are always couched in language saying that such behavior is permissible and laudatory in the name of challenging the powerful – but inevitably, as Christopher Hitchens predicted in 1994, the powerful majority eventually decides they want in on the victimhood business too.

Since the election of Trump, and the elevation of his movement, we have seen that this same brand of censorship has indeed fully crossed over. Once a proponent of deplatforming herself, Linda Sarsour recently came under intense pressure to be subject to it, with condemnations of her speaking at a CUNY graduation coming from the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl and hundreds of holocaust survivors. Reza Aslan had his CNN show cancelled for calling the president a ‘piece of shit’ on social media. Kathy Griffin was similarly let go from CNN’s new years eve broadcast for performing an ‘artistic’ stunt in which she held up a mock-up of the President’s severed head. A college professor defending a race-segregated Memorial Day celebration for Black Lives Matter in a mocking tone on Tucker Carlson was let go from her job for doing so.  Another professor, harshly criticizing Trump’s election, went into hiding as her speech to a classroom was secretly recorded by a conservative student and posted online, sending hateful comments her way as well as people sending photos of her house to let her know they knew where she was and imply potential threats to her safety.

These meme may have been birthed as a tool to help the powerless.  Once it has undergone horizontal transfer, it becomes a new deadly weapon to further the interests of the powerful.

This is the problem more generally with identity politics. Forming coalitions of minority interests to pursue an agenda isn’t bad in and of itself – a consistent liberal demand for equality coming from such coalitions only benefits all when it crosses over to the majority.  But when it becomes tribalism for its own sake, rather than a tool for the furthering of equal civil rights, it only benefits the majority once it crosses over, if only because the majority is still the largest tribe.  Postmodern identitarianism is more likely to give us Richard Spencer than new meaningful civil rights legislation, a trend illustrated clearly by the fact that the rhetoric used by identitarians of multiple racial stripes often sounds strikingly similar.

As some of you may know, I am generally not a fan of Reza Aslan.  Linda Sarsour, for her vile statements regarding Ayaan Hirsi Ali and anti-semitism, excites me even less. I don’t care for Kathy Griffin, the college professor on Tucker Carlson is a joke, and I’m grateful that Milo’s own words served as the catalyst of his undoing. But I do worry very much when more and more people must fear for their jobs when they wish to criticize the President, even in a profoundly distasteful or stupid way.  Our Democracy depends on the ability to do so, and the chilling effect on free speech that these trends has created is real. ( It’s certainly true that there was a deluge of beyond-tasteless criticism directed at Barack Obama when he was in office, but this transferred plasmid of silencing and firing had not quite passed over yet in quite the same way. Times were simpler then.)

Now with this and other tenets of anti-free speech sentiment having crossed over, we’re experiencing a new wave of what I’ve heard described as “patriotic correctness”, a similar desire to censor and shame those who dare to blaspheme against our national leaders or symbols. Holding up such an ideological conception of truth and a disdain for free speech may have been advocated within leftist academia with the very best intentions of helping the marginalized, but now instead it has created the era of fake news and alternative facts within the majority, only making it harder to hold their feet to the fire.

Given that many obvious basic historic inequities exist and are concerning, there are those who advocate that true consistency in ethics, rights, or speech misses the point.   Given the nature of power, they assert, there must be a corrective mechanism enacted that constantly challenges the prevailing narrative of those in power. There should indeed be free speech for some, not others.  And this idea, consistently applied, should in theory produce the more fair and equitable society we desire.

How many of you feel that is what we are achieving now?

When such conventions cross over – as the inevitably do – who do they end up helping, the powerful, or the powerless?

Are we pressing forward, or have we merely reaped the whirlwind?

Politics, Religion, Schism Podcast, Secularism, Social Justice, Terrorism

The Postmodern Condition, and How to Fight It – Schism Podcast no. 4, with guest Reza Ziai

June 15, 2017

UdsTdK97_400x400On this episode of the Schism Podcast, I talk with Reza Ziai, Lecturer of Psychology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, about Postmodernism, what it is, how its pervasiveness has affected our discourse, politics, and more, and how the Enlightenment is in need of a vigorous defense more than ever.

Read his articles at Areo Magazine.

Follow him on twitter at @Reza_Ziai

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ shows he hasn’t got a clue on terrorism.

January 28, 2017

When most Presidents take office, we are disappointed and angry about the things they promise and don’t deliver.  In the case of Donald Trump, after just one week, we are terrified that he’s really trying to implement almost everything he promised.

But he is still falling short.  It has already become evident that Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, we are.  And as for his “temporary Muslim ban” on immigration, Trump is showing himself to not have a clue when it comes to terrorism or its causes, nor even understanding the promises he made during the campaign.

Firstly, to the disappointment of his alt-right supporters, let’s just understand that this isn’t really a Muslim ban – it’s a ban on people coming from specific Muslim-majority countries, notably Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  Why does this make absolutely no sense if the goal is to prevent acts of terrorism?  According to the New York Post,

Not a single American was killed on U.S. soil by citizens from any of those countries between 1975 and 2015, according to statistics tallied by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute.

However, the same set of statistics show that nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by citizens from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey in the same time period — with the bulk of those killed being victims of the 9/11 attacks. Yet, people from those four countries are still welcome to apply for U.S. visas and travel permits.

Why is this the case?  One obvious explanation is his business ties to all of these countries, conflicts of interest that Trump has refused to give up while in office.

In a striking parallel, Trump’s sprawling business empire — which he has refused to rescind ownership of — holds multi-million dollar licensing and development deals in all of those countries, raising potential conflict of interest concerns and alarming questions over what actually went into the decision process behind Friday’s executive order.

In the interest of fairness, it’s undeniable that many of the conspicuous countries left off the list have had deep-seated diplomatic ties to the United States that preceded Trump for decades.  Many have helped the United States in numerous ways, providing intelligence and military assistance and other things in the war on terror.  But it’s important to highlight just how nonsensical this Executive Order is in its stated goals – banning specific groups from entering the United States in the interest of national security.

Trump must answer the most glaring contradiction present in this list – why Iran and not Saudi Arabia?  Saudi citizens, as previously noted, made up the majority of the 9/11 hijackers, and the Wahabist ideology they have exported for decades and continue to export is the ideological seed that has given rise to the modern jihadist movement.

Trump, like most Americans, seem to be largely ignorant of a simple fact – when we look at people who commit terrorism in the west against western countries, almost none of them are Shia, and this is because they do not express doctrine of Jihad in the same way that Sunni fundamentalists do.

It’s undeniably true that Shia extremists, “tethered to state and organizational objectives” have created many problems in the region itself, but in terms of our actual security interest at home, I almost never have to worry about a Shia Muslim blowing themselves up in an airport or in a marketplace, or driving a vehicle into a crowd in the name of a political or religious purpose.  Even in the sectarian morass of post-Saddam Iraq, the dearth of Shia suicide bombings has been noted, as ideological directives from the Shia establishment purposely put a lid on the practice in favor direct confrontation and political action.

This is not to let Iran or Syria off the hook one iota for being terrible regimes, nor to discount the threat that Iranian influence has presented towards Israel.  But we must remember that we aren’t talking about admitting regimes, but immigrants from those regimes, and if the Shia extremists haven’t proven to be a domestic terror threat in the west, then the Shia moderates have proven themselves even less so by orders of magnitude.  Iranian and Shia immigrants themselves haven’t proven to be imminent security threats to the United States, and outright banning them is going to do effectively nothing in terms of bolstering our own national security in this regard.

Trump himself shows his own glaring contradictions on this issue with recent comments regarding Christians from these very same parts of the world, who he seems to believe don’t threaten us and need our help.  On the subject of Christianity, Trump seems to understand that specific ideas matter – if Trump understood the greater ideological differences in the region, and how each are tied or are not tied to acts of terrorism committed in western countries, his list would be totally different.

ISIS of course does subscribe to a violent Wahabist/Sunni doctrine of jihad. I am not one of those on the left who mistakenly believes that religious ideas have no link to terrorism, or that specific religious ideas should harbor no concern at all with regards to keeping track of who may be entering the country.  But if Trump is going to make religious concerns part of our immigration policy, he should at least half understand them.  Banning Iranians while making no change to screening processes for immigrants from countries like Saudi Arabia will do absolutely nothing to make us safer.  If we were truly interested in an immigration policy regarding our national security, Saudi Arabia would be at the top of the list for all kinds of actions, and yet they remain one of our closest allies, not subject to anything new.

This approach is also of grave concern to our strongest allies in the Middle East, namely liberal and secular activists.  The Secular Activist Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, an atheist from Iraq who fled under direct threat from Al-Qaeda, who works all over the world promoting liberalism and feminism and human rights, will now be unable to attend any conferences outside of the United States, as he could be stopped and turned away at the border should he try to enter the country again.  Trump’s order does nothing to distinguish between the promoters of good and bad ideas in a way that will aid us in the war on terror, and does nothing to target specific areas where we actually could make meaningful progress in reducing threats.

If there was one thing that seemed at least potentially refreshing about Trump during the campaign, it was his willingness to go after the bad decisions committed by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in responding to Bin Laden’s attacks from Afghanistan by invading Iraq.  In banning Iranians in the hopes of stopping Sunni fundamentalists, he has proven himself equally worthy of parody and ridicule.


Politics, Religion, Schism Podcast, Secularism, Social Justice

Schism Podcast Episode 1: Why We Are Here, Filmmaker Jay Shapiro, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance”

January 22, 2017

After months of procrastination by perfectionism, here it is – the first episode of the Schism Podcast.

Much thanks to all who encouraged me and all who lovingly poked fun at me for doing it.

Special thanks to Evan Vicic, my audio guru who was able to point me in the right direction in terms of audio equipment and editing, so that I was able to do this without making a total technical fool of myself.

In this episode I discuss what brought me here, and have a great conversation with filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who is filming a movie version of “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.

Hope you enjoy this first rudimentary step forward.  Please leave suggestions and comments below for what and how I can do better in the future!

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

The 95 Theses of Charlie Hebdo and the Liberal Reformation

January 8, 2016
Packed copies of the latest edition of French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the title "One year on, The assassin still on the run" are seen at a printing house near Paris, France, January 4, 2016. France this week commemorates the victims of last year's Islamist militant attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket with eulogies, memorial plaques and another cartoon lampooning religion. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RTX2100T

Approximately one year ago, armed gunmen marched into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, murdering 11 people in their offices.  Later, a self proclaimed co-conspirator murdered several people in a Jewish grocer, with the intent of helping the Charlie gunmen escaped.  On the face of it,  the attack was nothing new.  It was not the first time, nor the last, that satirists of Muhammed would be attacked.  From the so-called Rushdie Affair, where a Fatwa was issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran against the author Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses”, to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making a film critical of the treatment of women in Islam,  to the attacks on EU offices, Danish and Norwegian embassies associated with Danish Cartoonists  in 2006, it was already known that to caricature Mohammed or Islam was to take one’s life in their own hands.  Charlie Hebdo’s offices had already been subject to arson attacks in 2011, and had been sued numerous times by various organizations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for inciting racial hatred.  Indeed just this week the Vatican declared its new cover, depicting God as an assassin, to be “blasphemy”.

But one year later, I can’t escape a nagging feeling, a feeling that I’ve only begun to see reflected in people around me.  This time, something really was different.  One year later, Charlie has irrevocably changed everything.

At the time, the reactions on the right were painfully predictable.  Members of the extreme right repeated their claims that every Muslim could be a secret walking ISIS cell in disguise.  On the far left the apologists came out in full force.  Glenn Greenwald hardly even mentioned the fact that so many people had died, because, you know, the cartoons were racist after all.  All across social media, so-called far left liberals gave themselves a pat on the back for saying “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and blamed the usual tired clichéd Commedia del Arte characters of western racism, western imperialism, and Islamophobia.  PC Culture, which, when history is written on this subject may have been seen at its zenith around the period of this controversy, was having none of it.

And as usual, there was no better whipping boy for this faction than the so-called New Atheists.  This renewed attack against them had been heating up prior to the Charlie Hebdo incident with the rise of ISIS the summer before and Islamist Terrorism now back in the headlines on a daily basis, culminating in the now infamous collision between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher.  If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen this incident many times, but just in case, here it is yet again.

And perhaps even more nauseating is the equally infamous response to this exchange by fellow apologist and regressive mega-star Reza Aslan (not to be missed as well is an excellent piece debunking his claims by Mohammed Syed and Sarah Haider ).

Already within myself, I was feeling my moral understanding of Islamic terrorism shifting. I had already acquainted myself with the most prominent New Atheist writers, including Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, but my basic understanding of conflict in the Middle East until ISIS was still very much in line with that of Greenwald and Aslan. Truthfully, in the pre-ISIS period, it was a very convincing theory. The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran begat the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Sykes-Picot agreement begat the problems of Iraq and Syria. Intervention in Afghanistan against the Soviets begat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The overthrow of Saddamm Hussein begat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. I had been one of those fervent anti-Iraq-War voters in 2008 that helped propel Barack Obama into office, absolutely fuming with anger about America’s blundering adventures in the middle east. It was a theory that up until recently seemed consistent and sensible.

But the rise of ISIS and a renewed conflict in that Gaza really did start to undermine all that for me.  After all, although ISIS was an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it came to prominence as a result of a Syrian Civil War that the United States very forcefully decided to stay out of.  What did the massacre and sex enslavement of Yadzidi women by ISIS have to do with US foreign policy decisions?  How could such actions have “nothing to do with Islam” when ISIS was so clearly and plainly justifying it using plain text in the Quran that so clearly justifies it?

Still however, I largely kept my feelings to myself.  After all, to openly declare that ISIS has a connection to Islam, or to admit that ancient dogma could actually lead to violence in the modern world was to invite a hailstorm of vicious criticism from the left.  This period was seeing the rise of the so-called Social Justice Warriors, and stories of people being shamed, harassed and fired for views that seemed anathema to the liberal orthodoxy were just beginning to become widely known.  It would still be some time before I finally had a nasty encounter with a friend infected by this Social Justice virus, but I was already becoming fearful of speaking my mind and worried about the social media firestorm that could consume me as it had so many others.

Charlie changed all that for me irrevocably.  For two reasons.

The first reason – we now saw a violent response no longer cast against the simplistic boogeyman of George Bush’s America. We had elected the “right” President for this job, a president who knew the difference between Sunni and Shia, between Afghanistan and Iraq, and had made reconciliation with the Muslim World a core commitment from the earliest days of his presidency (his speech in Egypt in 2009 seems as though from another planet when compared to today’s landscape). This was the President who withdrew from Iraq and killed Osama Bin Laden, and was totally unafraid to stretch out a hand of cooperation to Iran. If US foreign policy was singularly responsible for the rise of terrorism, then why did this new and more virulent strain of it arise after our troops had been withdrawn, our involvement in the Arab Spring minimal or on the right side of history as far as our own ideals are concerned, and our commitment to not be involved in the Syrian Civil War maintained?  This was the equation ceaselessly promoted by the Chomskys and Greenwalds for years in terms of how to prevent and end terrorism – why did it seem to only be increasing in this context?  People may point out that Obama stepped up the use of drones and failed to close Guantanamo Bay during his presidency, but this does not change the fact that now America was doing many things that these critics insisted we should have done all along.  Bush’s blundering cowboy-style ways were no longer our policy, and if such actions were the cause of such terrorism, surely shouldn’t reversing course at least reduce it?

The second reason it changed everything was my inability to stomach the obviously callow and absurdly illogical response to the attack by the far left any longer.  After such a clear violation of our most deeply held principles, to see so many members of my fellow liberal tribe indulge in the narcissism of our own supposed culpability in these actions was the final nail in my regressive coffin.  How could intelligent, well-educated, rational people make the false equivalence between the supposed offense caused by the cartoons and the murder of the cartoonists themselves?  How could people who supposedly believe in the equality of all people reduce non-white non-Christian people to mindless automatons, unable to think and only able to react to stimuli like a caged animal?  How could we indulge in so many ridiculous and irrational beliefs on the grounds of tolerance – like that Islam is a race, or that lampooning a religious icon is the same as bigotry against people, or that we actually do need to adhere to anti-blasphemy laws with respect to one religion, as opposed to the many others to which we would never supplicate ourselves?

For me, and I believe others, Charlie Hebdo was this last back-breaking straw.  We lost our fear of speaking out, and the moral clarity of this new liberal cause came into focus – there is no degree of religious offense that can justify murder, and there is absolutely no room in liberalism for those that would sacrifice its dearest principles upon the alter of a narcissistic, self-serving, disingenuous multiculturalism.  Since then, and through the most recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I continually see a new evolution of thought on this from my friends and family.  In tandem with a rejection of the post-modernist PC left for other reasons, the cries of “racist” for anyone who dare criticize religion are beginning to ring hollow and to lose their sting.  Previously more controversial commentators like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz are beginning to be featured on major news networks almost as often as their Regressive counterparts.  I can feel when I talk to people that many simply do not believe the largely disproven Chomskyesque theories anymore, and though we have not found it yet, we are in the process of finding a better way forward to end this threat of Islamist extremism without sacrificing our deeply held belief in tolerance and openness.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks most explicitly about the need for a Muslim Reformation.  But in tandem with this is another, perhaps even more important one – the Liberal Reformation, a Reformation that I believe is already taking place in our midst.  There is a movement out there, still in its infancy that is slowly coalescing around a set of core principles to save liberalism from itself.  A renewed advocacy for free speech, rational debate, and fearless defense of human rights over advocacy of any particular culture or group is beginning to find thought leaders and media figures, from older New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris to liberal Muslim reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Ali A. Rizvi, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, Asra Normani, and more.  There isn’t a widely disseminated term for it yet – Rizvi advocates for a “New Center” as one possible choice, while Milo Yiannopolous describes “cultural libertarianism“.  Along with a strong movement against Authoritarian Political Correctness seen in the public sphere today, this movement is pulling in figures from the right and the left with a renewed commitment to evidence and open debate as the way forward to solve the problems of terrorism and dogmatism moving forward.

It is the rejection of the Politically Correct, and the passionate embrace of the Factually Correct.  It has not been soon enough in coming, and it cannot be too soon when it succeeds in becoming the primary mode of our discourse.  Solving the problem of theocratic violence in our time – without falling into the hands of truly racist and xenophobic leaders like Donald Trump or Marie Le Pen – depends on our willingness to acknowledge the failure of the old framework and to embrace a rational process by which we find a better one.  The time to search our souls is now, and to emerge with new beliefs and a new vocabulary worthy of the struggle we seek to win.

In this crisis, dogmatic superstition isn’t the solution to our problems – dogmatic superstition is the problem.

Religion, Secularism

Defeating the Dark Side: How “Star Wars” and a New Science of Narrative Hold the Key to Defeating Terrorism In Our Time

December 18, 2015

Today, millions of people all over the world will take part in a collective ritual. They will be contemplating the same story, an epic myth about the fight between good and evil, father and son, love and fear, about the nature of the universe and how we relate to it. Millions of people who have never met and never will meet will share in an experience of collective catharsis and release around a common set of “symbols and metaphors”, as Reza Aslan calls them. Millions of people will come together around this narrative, united in an experience of wonder that this narrative instills in them, informing their lives and shaping their view of morality.

No, I’m not talking about a religious service. I’m talking about Star Wars.

Star Wars is an almost perfect example of epic narrative by design. George Lucas was very open about taking the work of Joseph Campbell, perhaps the most famous scholar of mythological archetypes, slapping on stormtrooper uniforms and sending it into space. It very blatantly takes many of the features of ancient religious myths Campbell talks about, including conflict between father and son, oracles, prophecies, temptation away from the path, apotheosis, and more. And it worked. Star Wars has ascended into our culture as a meme among memes, using perhaps the oldest concepts of form and structure devised by artists over centuries of human civilization.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is – Star Wars, no more factually truthful than religion, has all of its power. Whole communities spring up around it, in both the real and virtual worlds. Families have been joined and babies have been born over a shared love of this narrative, thanks to the numerous conventions and gatherings that are centered around it. I have no doubt that many of us, on a first date, found great satisfaction and relief to learn that our date too loved Star Wars, opening up all kinds of areas of commonality and understanding. The symbols and metaphors it provides have entered into all other areas of popular culture. If you compare someone to Darth Vader an we automatically know what they mean. “Turning to the Dark Side” need not be explained by almost anyone to understand how one may be poking fun at you or being deathly serious, depending on the context of your conversation.

But I would go one step further. Star Wars isn’t just as powerful as religion – it’s superior.

Why is Star Wars better than religion? Because we get all of the benefits, with none of the encumbrances. Yes, we can take away much meaning and catharsis, but we never have to believe any of it is true. And nobody is even pretending that it’s true. No holy wars will be waged over the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor will preaching the virtue of the Dark Side be declared apostasy and be punished as such. Star Wars is truly a religion of peace, because we do not have to believe it’s actually true. Not even the craziest fans preach it as such, nor has even the fringe of the fringe even tried to argue that belief in Star Wars be forced upon others by the point of the sword.

Many have said that we’ll never fully replace religion, and the history of the 20th century shows that very often other narratives *do* take religion’s place and function in much the same way. To move forward, perhaps giving our narratives the “Star Wars Treatment” is the real solution. Not only would “The Muhammed Trilogy” make for great cinema, it would expose the story for what it really is – just a story – without removing the meaning and hope it gives to so many billions of people. It could still offer all of the catharsis and release and collective experience that religion does, but without being encumbered by any illusions that a literalist interpretation is still a reasonable one.

Why do certain narratives take hold over a culture while others don’t? Why do old ones fade and pass away while others grow stronger? I am not exaggerating when I say that understanding this is critical to solving the problems we are grappling with today. The encumbrances of religions narrative aren’t just silly, or inconvenient, they are in many cases outright deadly. The terrorists in the San Bernardino shooting were not part of any formal terror cell, nor did they have any formal contact with the Islamic State – coming into contact with ISIS propaganda was enough to override all of their brain’s default functionality geared towards self preservation and unleash deadly violence upon a center for disabled children. To defeat terrorism, it is this narrative we must defeat. And to defeat it, we need to consider aspiring to understand the entire process of narrative to an extent that has never before been considered.

As of now it is almost impossible to really understand viral information in an even remotely scientific way. Our understanding of the brain and how it interacts with information is too infantile. But when considering how one could approach this, I can’t help but be reminded of the summers I spent at Harvard University doing X-ray crystallography, the process by which we learn the biological structure of proteins, viruses and more so as to understand how and why they function. Very often it is structure that determines how and why a virus manipulates our bodies for its own purposes – can you imagine a world where we could understand the ‘structure’ of information or narrative in as clearly a scientific, quantifiable way? Imagine being able to quantify exactly how information interacts in our neural networks, understanding more completely what it is about certain powerful structures that make them spread through a human culture like wildfire. What would this understanding look like? How could we go beyond humanistic, pseudo-scientific speculation regarding why certain types of information like literature, oratory, music, film and more are able to affect the brains of so many human beings? Could we begin to really understand how powerful orators could inspire stadiums full of people either to embrace their fellow man or throw them into gas chambers?

I have absolutely no answers to this, but I firmly believe that it is only when we learn to understand and harness this power that we will begin to turn the tide against religious terrorism and oppression. Until that day comes, the process will be, for lack of a better expression, “more art than science.” We will have to keep engaging in the very unscientific process of simply imitating past models that happened to work, and throwing things at the wall until something sticks.

Perhaps one day, a vision of a truly diverse, peaceful world really will be as powerful as Christianity or Islam, and sell far more tickets than Star Wars. Until that day comes, may the force be with you.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

What the Planned Parenthood Assailant Is Not

December 2, 2015

Things that nobody said during the attack on Planned Parenthood –

“I’m really scared the attacker could be Hindu.”
“Another Buddhist extremist attacking an abortion service provider.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, I bet it was ISIS”.
“The Amish. Maybe it was the Amish.”

We are still learning more about the shooter – thus far what we do know is that he apparently muttered something about “baby parts” and was known to distribute anti-Obama literature. Even with this incomplete information, this has lead many in cyberspace to come to the conclusion – correctly in my view – that this shooter is probably motivated by a classic brand of muscular American Political Christianity, a brand constantly pandered to by the Republican Party.

Interesting how all of us *correctly* jumped to the conclusion that the shooter was a) Christian, and b) carrying out the attacks on the basis of his beliefs, both religious and political. We all *correctly* made the connection between belief and action. And while it is possible that further evidence might overturn this (I’ll gladly admit it if it turns out I was wrong), most of us are fairly confident that this is the shooter’s likely motive.

Why didn’t any of us say the statements above? Because we haven’t known those other belief communities to hold a special animus against abortion service providers in the same way. Political Christians, on the other hand, have been telling us *for decades* that abortion is tantamount to murder. We very correctly aren’t concerned about those other groups being especially hostile to Planned Parenthood, and very correctly take seriously those who are telling us *constantly* that they are.

All of these conclusions seem obvious and logical. And yet during the attacks in Paris, many of us on the liberal side bent over backwards and jumped through every rhetorical hoop in the book to somehow draw *no connection* between the terrorists literalist take on Islam and those attacks. Indeed, even though terrorists are *constantly* telling us why they attack, we *refuse* to take them seriously, convinced that other motives *must* be at work.

For my liberal friends – how many of us would sound stupid or insensitive if we chose *this* moment to say “You can’t generalize all Conservative Christians on the basis of the actions of a few!” or “Conservative Christianity is a religion of peace!” And how many of us would be laughed at – correctly – if we called anyone making the connection between Conservative Christianity and this horrific crime a “racist” or “anti-Christian bigot” or “Christianophobe”.

For my conservative friends – those of you completely distancing yourself, saying that this shooter is “no true Christian”, or that he doesn’t represent all Christians or that this crime “has *nothing* to do with Christianity” – you do realize that you sound identical to the rhetoric regressive leftists and theocrats use in the wake of *every* terrorist attack, rhetoric you ridicule and find infinitely insulting in the wake of tragedy? You *correctly* make the connection between the literalist interpretation of the Koran and the terrorist attacks in Paris. Indeed, you’re not afraid to *incorrectly* make connections between the Koran and terrorists attacks when the connections *don’t* exist. Why should we expect the Christian faith to function any differently if taken too seriously?

It’s time for Conservatives to admit that hyperbolic rhetoric regarding abortion has consequences, as does *really* taking the Bible too seriously. And it’s time for liberals to fearlessly condemn ideological zealotry across the board, not just when the perpetrator is white. It’s time to embrace a liberalism that makes *no* excuses for barbarism anywhere, even when committed by members of historically oppressed groups that do harbor some legitimate grievances against “white people” or “the West.”

Either beliefs lead to terrorism, or they don’t. One cannot have it both ways just for the sake of being politically correct.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

Mali’s Missing Tragedy Hipsters

November 20, 2015

There’s a terrorist attack in Mali today – gunmen stormed a hotel shouting “God is great” in Arabic, killing a number of people and taking many hostages, apparently releasing some of the hostages after they showed they could recite verses of the Quran.

Two days ago, Boko Haram killed 49 people in a suicide bombing attack in Nigeria. The suicide bombers they used were 11 and 18 year old girls.

Both attacks made the front page of the Huffington Post. By and large, very few people I knew were discussing them extensively on social media.

I think it’s time to admit a couple of things –

1) The media do not “ignore” terrorist attacks in other countries. The media actually reported these two attacks quite openly and fairly.
2) The same people claiming to care so much about Beirut and Kenya (months after the fact) seem to ‘not care’ about these attacks as much as everyone else – with internet silence on their own part. In fact, the only people I know who did discuss this on social media weren’t people who took part in “grief shaming” people about Paris at all a few days ago.
3) Most likely, when and if another attack happens in the west, people will suddenly say that the media “ignored” these attacks, and that other people “don’t care” about them.

We should also admit a few things moving forward –

1) Most people we know simply do not have as personal a connection to Mali or Nigeria as they do to Paris. It’s just an accidental circumstance of their birth. And that’s okay.
2) Horrific tragedies aren’t a stage upon which one gets to pounce around proclaiming their own progressive superiority, especially when they “didn’t seem to care” according to their own metrics in the first place.
3) Liberals, especially white liberals, are genuinely uncomfortable discussing when attacks like this take place, when it’s predominately minority terrorists attacking other minority victims. We really want to believe that terrorism is mostly our *own* fault, that it’s the result of White privilege and White supremacy and colonialism and imperialism. I think it gives us a sense of control and reinforces our own well-internalized framework of how to understand the world, a process which gives us comfort and reassurance at precisely the moment when people need such things most. “White people have done bad things too” or “Who are we to judge” seems to be something we are much more comfortable saying in reaction to this, rather than perhaps really confronting the truth that unspeakable acts have been committed by people who happen to be members of historically oppressed minorities that we, in our very best awareness, solemnly swear to protect.

Something tells me however that when a group is using 11 and 18 year old girls as suicide bombers, “white people have done bad things too” should probably take a back seat for a couple of hours. Not that it isn’t true – it takes the focus off of the people that need our attention the most – the victims – precisely when they require our attention the most.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

Don’t Grief Shame for Paris

November 15, 2015

Many people are asking why others on Social Media aren’t mourning as much for victims of recent terrorist attacks by ISIS and other Islamist groups in Beirut, Kenya, Syria and Iraq as they are in Paris. Some are saying “I refuse to change my profile picture to the French flag because I care about these other countries just as much – where is their flag, where is *their* safety check-in?” This happens quite a bit when terrorist-related tragedy strikes.

I guess on the surface I’m heartened to know people suddenly care about victims of terrorism in the middle east, but I must say I am confused, because overwhelmingly the people I know saying this usually completely ignore attacks such as these when they actually happen. Indeed, it is only when an attack happens on European or Western targets that some choose to voice their sudden concern over them, even weeks or months later than when the attacks took place.

Case in point – many people are now confused into thinking the attacks in Kenya just took place at around the same time as the attacks in Paris. They actually took place last April, and the same people now declaring their importance actually had almost *nothing* to say when they occurred. I do remember posting about this, and some of the same people now saying this overall were strangely mute. The responses I got from such people were “well it’s a complicated conflict”. It *was* a terrible tragedy, incidentally, in which 147 people died when they were attacked by the Somali islamist group Al-Shabab.

A similarly horrific attack occurred in Pakistan in December of 2014, in which Taliban gunmen stormed a school, killing 132 children and 9 adults. Many of the same people now suddenly caring about *other* Islamist attacks were almost totally silent on this when it was *actually* occurring.
It’s difficult for me to parse this out, because I actually do think it’s great that some liberal friends are beginning to focus on acts of terrorism in the middle east, a topic that too often goes ignored in these discussions. I do think some people I know on social media are *genuinely* concerned about them, and to those I am grateful that they are sharing news of the truth of these events.
However, I can’t help but imagine that others really are just using such events rather sanctimoniously to feed their own need to feel superior to their fellow liberals, and the extent to which they suddenly care about these past attacks only seems to coincide with the ability to help manufacture this superiority. Faisal Saeed Al Mutar captures this perfect in his sarcastic hashtag ‪#‎IamMoreProgressiveThanYou‬.

When terrorists attack Western targets, in a strange way I think it’s easier for us to understand them. Our belief that imperialism and white privilege create terrorism aligns with our (rightly) mutlicultural and multiracial sensibilities, and gives us a sense of control that by already working towards goals we care about we can solve these problems, without ever having to castigate members of a historically oppressed class of people that we work tirelessly to try and elevate to a level of greater equality in our world. I think that sense of control we feel isn’t dissimilar to the feeling some get by prayer – in an insane world where tragedy abounds, that feeling of control and the idea that we can somehow make a difference is a critical source of comfort to the grieving, and I do not discount it.

But I think when attacks like the one in Kenya and the one in Pakistan actually occur – when an Islamist group murders children or students that are predominately Pakistani or Black or Arab or other non-white minorities – liberals have a difficult time parsing through it, because it flies in the face of narratives we very much want to believe regarding terrorism. We obviously believe that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that Muslims overall are peaceful people, and that these attacks occur not because of religious ideology but because of the oppression that historically has been placed upon these groups of people, most notably by Western imperialism and colonialism. We really don’t want to believe that something wrong may be afoot among some individual people who happen to be members of those groups, and we feel that due to our privilege and power in the world we cannot “possibly” criticize members of these oppressed groups fairly. Indeed, it’s committing heresy against the ideals we hold dearly in our quest to make the world a more racially equitable place. I think we have a harder time believing sometimes that such horrific acts can also happen as a result of independent human agency and devotion to a literalist, straightforward reading of religious scripture.

I can’t help but think some (not all) of the people pointing to this disparity of coverage among these tragedies suddenly look at the tragedy in Paris, and now find these other tragedies as a convenient vehicle by which to boast their multicultural credentials, to puff out their chests and quietly shame others for expressing their solidarity with Paris and the victims of the attack. This grief-shaming not only I think is in poor taste, it is somewhat narcissistic, and turns the attack in Paris into more of a commentary about themselves than about the victims.

Please don’t mistake me – we can tell the difference between those who are genuinely concerned and others more self-serving, so don’t automatically assume I’m criticizing you if you pointed this out.  But maybe we should consider just allowing people to recognize the tragedy and mourn the victims in peace in the way they know best, and not use it as an opportunity to score Social Justice points for ourselves. By all means, let us draw attention to these other acts of terrorism when they occur. But for the Social Justice inclinded type of person, perhaps we should consider ceasing the “grief-shaming” when tragedy strikes.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

Thinking Instead of Praying for Paris

November 13, 2015

Prayers for Paris are well intentioned, but let’s not forget that it was also partially too much prayer that inspired the deaths of over 100 innocent people today.

Maybe it’s time to admit that in this crisis, lots of prayer isn’t the solution to our problems – too much prayer *is* the problem.

Maybe it’s time to work together to do a little less praying and more thinking. Less recitation and more questioning.

Maybe it’s time to be less respectful of belief without evidence, and more respectful of the common heritage science irrefutably shows us to possess. Time to admit that our ancient ancestors, doing the best they could with the best they had, just got it wrong, and that we *can* do better. For religion, racism, sexism, communism, fascism, all at their core are baseless superstition that science and reason render impotent on a daily basis to the mind that is open to questioning everything critically.

Let’s pray a little less and think a little more about how we can retire these relics of our barbaric ancestors. Our progress as a species depends on it.