On the Misunderstood Nature of Work and Government Assistance

December 20, 2016

An interesting question I just saw on social media – “Why did all these Trump supporters, such as unemployed former coal miners, vote to destroy their own health insurance?”

Some liberal outlets are almost gleefully celebrating this outcome as justly deserved rewards.

Paul Krugman, not exactly one without contradictions between his professed progressivism and staunch campaign against Bernie Sanders, similarly seems to revel in the irony.

Regressive liberal sociopathy aside, the question raised by this simple fact – that so many people in middle America who need health insurance the most decisively voted against it – is one worthy of examination.  The contradiction present is, at least on the surface level, bewildering.

But I believe it is a mistake to simply assume that people who did so were somehow willfully acting against their best interests.  Rather, I think a lot of people born in the coastal bubble (like me) often don’t understand just how differently people in the middle of the country view the concept of work, and what it means when one confesses they need or want government assistance.

In much of middle America, it’s not about just getting what one needs by hook or by crook, it is the act of self-sufficiency in and of itself for its own sake that is considered one of the most important moral goods. The idea isn’t that we just create a society where people have what they need and we use government to fill in any gaps, it’s a society where people have everything they need *solely by laboring enough* to acquire it on their own, built on the presumption that being able to do so isn’t that hard with just a touch of will-power.

It’s not about whether government can or should provide healthcare to all its people, it’s the idea that using the government to do this at all – even if it did it better and more efficiently – is a shameful act, and buying into it is seen within this framework as proof that one isn’t significantly industrious enough to do it on one’s own.

And now of course we come to the central problem with this worldview – we live in an age where quite frankly, we simply don’t need the labor or industriousness of many of these people. This philosophy regarding work and self-sufficiency, while it made some sense in a world where there was too much work to be done and too few people to do it, is running into the brick wall of globalization and automation. And just as when a concept held as a religious truth runs into this wall of reality, the reaction of people caught in the crash clinging to the dogma can be rancorous, unsettling, and deeply troubling.

Given the fact that many *only* want a world in which they would and could do it all on their own, in a way it makes sense that they would support someone like Trump, who simultaneously wants to break Obamacare but insanely promised to bring all the old jobs back. It’s not that they don’t want healthcare – they want it in a way that fits perfectly with what they perceive to be the moral and just narrative of their ancestors. Only when acquired through labor is it not shameful to have, and the realities of the modern world are making this more and more difficult no matter how hard one even *tries* to work.

And when your religious worldview fails it is always easier to blame outsiders and scapegoats for your ills, rather than admitting that your own moral algorithm is out of date and unsuited to the new world in which it is still trying to operate.

PS – On the subject of the above mentioned liberal sociopathy, Sarah Jones is right on the money –  “Liberals should try not having so much contempt for the poor“.

Politics, Social Justice

Hillary Clinton Supporters Don’t Care about the Poor. Identity Politics is their New Religion.

March 16, 2016

Today has been yet another day where the micro aggressed Hillary Clinton supporters  reared their ugly head, with critiques pouring out all day over social media serving the same old myth – “if you dislike Hillary Clinton, you are a sexist.”

I must admit that this election cycle has been eye-opening to me. I woke up to realize that the Democratic Party is in fact far less liberal that I imagined. It is the party of the identity politics left, in the same way that the Republican Party is the party of the religious right.

Identity politics and political correctness are the only truly sacred values, to be compromised for nothing else.  And it is because of this willingness to betray every other liberal value upon this golden altar identity politics – the beneficiary of which is big money – that we need to start identifying “liberal” support for Hillary Clinton for what it is, a perfect example of “the regressive left”.  

Maajid Nawaz coined this term regarding the subject of Islam and terrorism to describe well-meaning liberals who will sacrifice all concern for universal human rights in the name of multiculturalism.  I believe this example fits because what you are seeing are liberals more than happy to sacrifice every liberal economic value – indeed spend hours upon hours denigrating plans for universal healthcare and free public education as if they are Republicans – in the name of ‘feminism’ and the modern brand of social justice.

It has been astonishing and dispiriting to see see how many “liberals” are publicly declaring that they don’t actually much care about the poor. They support “free-trade” – one of the very signature issues fueling the rise of Donald Trump –  fully.  This morning I listened to an NPR story where Florida mayor Bob Buckhorn showed exactly what side of the free trade debate he stood on.  After hearing an interview with a woman exposing just how free trade ruined her life and her marriage, the mayor made it clear that making any such connection was erroneous.

BUCKHORN: Well, I think that’s an unfair portrayal of trade in general. I mean, why would we not want to knock down over 18,000 barriers to 40 percent of the world’s global economy? I mean, I think opening up trade is a good thing. I think – we really ought to be focused on how the economy is changing and how the workforce, the skill set needed to compete in a global economy is changing.

I don’t know that you could blame trade and opening up opportunities for American jobs and American businesses for that particular situation. So obviously the trade deals, TPP in particular, have been a long time in the works. Senator Clinton has come out in opposition to that. TPP does correct a lot of NAFTA’s issues. So I think moving forward trade is a good thing. We just have to make sure that the impact on American workers is a positive thing.

Indeed, one friend of mine, a friend I had always thought of as a liberal, referred to the loss of the American middle-class completely as “the loss of white privilege”. I can concede that in an earlier age when jobs were plentiful he may have had a point, but whether or not white people had better access to jobs when they were plentiful is different from whether or not these jobs exist at all anymore.

Now a “liberal” can be pro war, pro Wall Street, Pro free trade, pro drug war, pro mass incarceration, and still call themselves a liberal.

Are liberals ever going to wake up and realize that this is madness?

More than that, why should people be shocked that these poor and desperate people, living in third world conditions thanks to policies the Clintons supported and enacted are jumping into the arms of Donald Trump – who at least seems on the surface to actually care about them?  Donald Trump at least talks about being willing to reverse some of the trade policies that over 20 years on appears to have benefited only a tiny percentage of the richest people in corporate America, on the backs of American workers.

It has been absolutely astonishing to see any advocacy for the American working poor either dismissed or deflected as yet another example of sexism.  It has shown the elite support for Hillary Clinton to mostly consist of what I can now identify as corporate trickle down feminism – feminism that is obsessed about how wealthy, well-educated 1% women are performing in corporate boardrooms, with almost no concern about whether or not a poor single mother is able to earn a living wage.

Perhaps one of the most clear examples of this kind of regressive identity politics can be embodied in the personage of Amy Siskind, a Wall Street 1 percenter who racked up an impressive resumé running the kind of Wall Street trading desks that destroyed the American economy in 2008.  Just before the Michigan primary, she called Bernie’s criticism of Hillary’s support for free trade agreements ‘sexist’, because her record was distinct from Bill’s.


Over twitter, in an exchange that of course got me expelled from Amy Siskind’s safe space, I pointed out to her three separate instances in which Clinton vocally supported free trade.




The response of this former debt trader?  A typical regressive smokescreen.  Don’t address the proof.  Don’t address the evidence.  Cry sexism.


I’ve had to wake up and realize that the party that I thought actually did care about the poor on some level but was forced to tack to the right to win elections in the 1990s has actually never recovered from the “New Democrat” years.  Barack Obama, with the signature moderately liberal accomplishments he has achieved such as healthcare and Wall Street reform, may be seen historically as an aberration from what is now coming back as a fully corporate party, with the only difference being the religion to which it subscribes and inspires voters to vote against their self interest.  For years, big money used religion, mostly evangelical Christianity, to inspire working voters to vote against their own interests.  Today they are doing it with a new opiate of the liberal masses – identity politics.

It is amazing that in a country that still has such a shockingly high percentage of people that are either unemployed or underemployed in such a way so as to not be able to make ends’ meet that the ‘liberals’ are absolutely obsessed with whether or not Hillary Clinton has been addressed in a way that pleases the PC gods.  That comments about her hair they find unsuitable light up social media like a Christmas tree shows that this segment of the party in fact may not get it .  They may not understand the storm of discontent that would vote for Bernie Sanders, but if left with no choice may create the hurricane of Donald Trump, taking America in a direction for which we are unprepared and do not want to entertain.

I hope I’m wrong.  If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination – which looks likely at this point – I will do everything I can to get her elected.  But even if Trump loses this round, the Donald Trump movement is going to be with us for a long time, and we should fear round two even more if we do not make fundamental changes to the economic policies of this country.

I fear that identity politics may absolutely blind Hillary Clinton supporters to the coming storm.  That Hillary has been called fat and shrill – this is what the regressive leftists might still be talking about when Trump has his finger on the button, ready to push.

Politics, Social Justice

Killing Bernie, Perpetuating Racism: Ta-Nahisi Coates and the Social Justice Regressives

January 25, 2016

I think I’m ready to give a name to a movement I’ve seen for over a year that really troubles me – Regressive Social Justice.

Regressive in the sense that it is willing to actually throw the meaningful policy reform it argues for under the bus in the name of political correctness.

In this presidential race, we saw maybe the first and biggest instance of this when Black Lives Matter protestors took over a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, with one protestor saying “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,” accusing the audience of “white supremacist liberalism.”

Along with a confrontation at Netroots Nation earlier this year, it was the beginning of a bizarre chapter in the modern social justice movement: the destruction of Sander’s brand on black issues.  To be fair, some of the criticism has been policy-oriented.  But given that Sanders, on issues regarding incarceration, education, jobs, and the drug war, has been far superior to Hillary Clinton on just about every relevant metric, much more of it has been just a greater form of language and tone policing, a narcissistic obsession with vocabulary that often dwarfs real interest in meaningful policy changes.

The latest mutation of this bizarre practice now comes in the form of a new essay by Ta-Nahisi Coates, “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination”.  In the essay, Coates takes Sanders to task for saying that fighting for reparations in a likely intractable Congress could be “divisive”, especially when he is similarly fighting for his plans for healthcare and education that many allege to be equally divisive and improbable.

The need for so many (although not all) of Sanders’s supporters to deflect the question, to speak of Hillary Clinton instead of directly assessing whether Sanders’s position is consistent, intelligent, and moral hints at something terrible and unsaid. The terribleness is this: To destroy white supremacy we must commit ourselves to the promotion of unpopular policy. To commit ourselves solely to the promotion of popular policy means making peace with white supremacy.

Coates does make some valid points in this essay, absolutely worthy of discussion in the theoretical space of ideas, and unlike many other writers in his vein he is very fair in talking about Hillary Clinton’s record.  The problem I believe lies in the failure of Social Justice Regressives to realize how much branding matters, and that what makes for good theoretical discussion and what helps advance the cause can be two completely different things.  I think what he and others don’t realize is that they have tarnished Bernie’s brand so badly – and unfairly – on social justice issues that they may hand the Southern minority vote to Hillary Clinton, in which case Sanders will definitely lose this nomination.

Why should they care?  “Tough shit, that’s how the process works” you might say, except that Sanders is the first major candidate for president ever to publicly call for the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs, which, if “The New Jim Crow” is correct – I think it is – is probably the central lynchpin in the incarceration and criminalization of Black America. Bernie wants to legalize marijuana on the Federal level. Hillary Clinton is just fine keeping marijuana as illegal as cocaine.  Why does this not set off the alarm bells of the Social Justice left?  Hillary Clinton seems to be treated with kid gloves and enjoy much greater esteem within the African American community, bizarrely so when one revisits how she and her husband failed the black community immensely through the War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” legislation.  Is it due to greater media awareness, or her ability to offer more politically correct speech that enables her to escape this as her failures on policy go totally ignored?

Voters as a whole tend to vote based on brand perception rather than details; while Coates and others may be right on the details, I believe they are assaulting the brand only to their own self-defeat.  This can and will have real-life repercussions.  Will Coates and others effectively “Nader-ize” Sanders, and thus ensure that the drug war is perpetuated for several more generations?  Will they hand the Democratic Primary to the candidate who is less in tune with the hugely simmering emotion of working class grievance than Donald Trump is, effectively handing the election to the most openly racist President we’ve seen in generations?

I hope I’m wrong and this concern is unwarranted. I really hope Coates and others, in the name of righting wrongs, do not end up perpetuating the wrongs they seek to right. We can’t afford Regressive Social Justice.


PS – I encourage everyone reading this to watch host Benjamin Dixon‘s response to Coates’s earlier essay on the same topic.  Hits many of the same points from a black progressive perspective.

I also suggest you follow him on twitter. I was very impressed with the wisdom he imparted here.

Politics, Religion

MLK would gladly violate your safe space

January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King’s legacy is so all-encompassing and speaks to so many people that, like a great work of art, we all believe it speaks to us personally, and the things that we care about in particular.  Today is a day when anybody with a certain perspective will claim King as their own, especially on the liberal side of the aisle, and perhaps most of all in the so-called “social justice” wing of that side.  But while his roles as a fighter for racial justice, equality, and reconciliation are well known, there are additional roles he filled that have been almost totally forgotten – fearless free-speech advocate, blasphemer, and fact-based intellectual.

Just as Galileo’s scientific discoveries rankled the Church, racial equality and reconciliation were absolutely radical ideas for their time.  In a space of white supremacy King was a blasphemer of the first order, his stance on free speech unequivocal and strong.

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Imagine this quote – taken out of the context of King’s cause and legacy – paired with some of the quotes from college students today.

“Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences…[it could be] damaging.”

At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Especially imagine King’s thoughts on new ideas paired with a Yale student’s reaction to being forced to debate policies on offensive halloween costumes this past fall.

“I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

Is there any doubt how a King rising today would have been portrayed by the Social Justice Left, these “soft-minded” men and women?  If this exchange at Yale is any indication, the reception would have been less than kind. We can see King in many ways being the antithesis of this modern movement with regards to tactics, which seems to favor ideology dictated by social force rather than the use of argument and reason to win the day.  If the story of modern-day allies in the Social Justice movement tell us anything, it’s that King’s stance may not have been very welcomed, regardless of the agreement on desired outcomes and policy.

King re-articulated his commitment to the first amendment in his famous “Mountain top” speech, the last speech he gave before he was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968.  A court injunction had been issued against him to hold a rally and march on April 8, and in response he affirmed once again how un-American such an infringement on free speech really was.

Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

Furthermore it is fascinating to compare what the Civil Rights activists went through in the 60s with the reception of some who breech the status quo today.  When sit-in protestors sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1960s

Reactions to the sit-in protesters varied by restaurant. In many places, groups of white men gathered around the protesters to heckle them and there was occasional violence. “In a few cases the Negroes were elbowed, jostled and shoved. Itching powder was sprinkled on them and they were spattered with eggs,” The Times reported. “At Rock Hill, S.C., a Negro youth was knocked from a stool by a white beside whom he sat. A bottle of ammonia was hurled through the door of a drug store there. The fumes brought tears to the eyes of the demonstrators.” Many managers closed their counters rather than deal with the protests.

When one reads about a student earlier this year who published an Op-Ed in a publication at Weslyan University, critical of the tactics (but not the goals) of Black Lives Matter, the echoes of such behavior are inescapable.

Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.

Finally, on Sunday, the student government voted unanimously to halve funding for the newspaper and redistribute the savings among four campus publications (including, possibly, the Argus, subject to a student vote). This measure is allegedly intended to reduce paper waste and promote editorial diversity.

The irony is plain for all to see – how many of King’s self-proclaimed successors in this fight seem to abandon the very thing that made his fight possible?  Among millenials and in the academy, where his ideas can be said to more or less be the majority consensus, there is an entirely different view on free speech.  There are, it seems, certain taboos too sacred to be challenged.

This again, was not the case with King, even concerning questions of his faith.  In a 1949 paper he wrote while at the Crozer Theological Seminary, King wrote about the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, a Persian cult religion that was in competition with early Christianity.  It is amazing to see the intellectual honesty with which he addresses the early history of Christianity, a kind of honesty that could cost a religious person socially even in today’s society.

“It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied. Even Christian apologist had to admit that fact….One of the most interesting of these ancient cults was Mithraism, which bore so many points of resemblance to Christianity that it is a challenge to the modern student to investigate these likenesses and learn more about them….Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and Orientalist expressed the opinion that Mithraism would have been the religion of the modern world if anything had occured to halt or destroy the growth of Christianity in the early centuries of its existence. All this goes to show how important Mithraism was in ancient times.”

I can’t imagine any prominent Social Justice figures of today willing to be so honest about their own narratives.  Too often we hear modern day Social Justice Warriors defending their ideology with every bit as much irrational war-like screeching with which the status quo of old defended their own.  Martin Luther King was different – on the battlefield of ideas, he didn’t retreat into his safe space.  Perhaps nobody pointed this out better than CNN’s Don Lemmon, speaking of the tendency of some to want to restrict speech during the widely covered Mizzou protests last year.

Freedom fighters like Dr. King and Malcolm X quite often and on purpose would run right into the lion’s den to engage with peopel with whom they didn’t necessarily agree or care for.  Why?  Because they weren’t afraid of confrontation.  of being challenged.  They weren’t afraid of being offended.  They weren’t afraid of offending.

Students should be safe from physical harm, anywhere.  But they should not be coddled by retreating into so called safe spaces for fear of having their feelings hurt.

The story of King’s quest to transform America’s moral compass follows an eerily similar arc to many other great reformers, particularly in the United States.  There is no doubt that the reason the United States has endured, grown, and evolved for the better is due to its commitment in law to the Freedom of Speech.  History has shown us that all progress is nothing more than peer-reviewed blasphemy, and for that reason we should honor MLK the blasphemer as much as in his other roles.  Martin Luther King day should be a day to reflect on all that free speech has given us over time, including women’s suffrage, civil rights for minorities, and most recently, greater equality for LGBT citizens. The freer and more open the debate, the greater the progress.  Perhaps nothing shows this correlation greater than the speed with which gay rights have progressed, thanks to the even freer flow of information made possible by the Internet and new technology.

Let us not dishonor King’s legacy by sacrificing the very principle that made his legacy possible.  King was only successful because of his willingness to violate the ‘safe space’ of white America, a fact that should inspire us to rekindle our commitment to unsafe, intellectually fearless spaces.  For it is at the frontiers of un-safe spaces that progress is found – it is only a matter of history finding the men and women brave enough to chart them for us.


Trump v. Sanders, Germany v. Roosevelt

January 13, 2016

With Bernie Sanders now in a statistical dead heat in Iowa with Hillary Clinton, and trending significantly above her in New Hampshire, we should begin to accept the likelihood that Sanders will be the Democratic Nominee for President, and that he will face Donald Trump in the general election.  Should this happen, as I believe it will, we shall see a rare glimpse into our recent history, and a chance to replay the historic choices of our past.  It is a moment filled with both fear and excitement, one that could give us all we seek to gain if chosen wisely, and a profound moment of moral loss if chosen poorly.

Some 75-odd years ago, we similarly had a world reeling from economic upheaval, teeming with a disaffected working class that felt left out, left behind, and betrayed.  In Germany, the body politic responded with Hitler;  In America, with Roosevelt.  The choices of each respective nation made all the difference in terms of who won and who lost, and who emerged from their lost economy with any sense of real success or moral purpose.

This year, regardless of significantly better conditions than in the 1930s,  this election will be a replay of the same sort of disaffection in the same sort of world, and once again the biggest question facing us as voters will be which solution we’ll pick – the German solution, or the Roosevelt solution.

Trump embodies the German solution, solidifying the grievances of the working class – some of them legitimate – into a new hard-right xenophobic facism. In combining this with leftward economic tendencies on trade with China and higher taxes on Wall Street elites, Trump is flirting with elements of an American brand of National Socialism.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that this solution does not turn out well.  Trump’s recent rhetoric on Mexicans and Muslims must give us pause – is it disingenuous pandering?  History shows us that we have no choice but to take his words seriously, and already we are seeing the dire consequences of such rhetoric.  

Sanders represents the Roosevelt solution, a truly Democratic socialism. It is because of Roosevelt’s willingness to use the Democratic process to legitimately address grievances that America did not descend into the same pit of fascism and subsequent tyranny that so many European nations succumbed to.  Unlike Clinton, Sanders recognizes the grievances fueling Trump voters. He has declared his willingness to court those voters and to channel them constructively in a way that, like the New Deal, does not require othering or xenophobia to fuel itself.

Which solution will America choose?  Needless to say, it is imperative that we work tirelessly to sway voters towards the Roosevelt solution.  Everything depends on our ability to channel grievance in a way that produces the Hoover Dam and the WPA, and not the horrific alternatives that might otherwise be possible.  Let us not give in to temptation – may our clear knowledge of history in hard times help us to not have to re-fight the terrible wars that we will have to win, both physically and intellectually, should the German solution win the day.

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.