White Privilege? Let Me Whitesplain it to Ya!

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If white privilege is a problem, then it stands to reason that I can only see that problem through the lens of white privilege, and if whitesplaining is a problem, then any account I might give of it carries a real danger of becoming yet another instance of whitesplaining. I don’t always handle these issues well. (Seriously, I think about some of my past comments and cringe.) It’s a tricky issue. Still, I don’t think it’s one I can avoid any more than the next guy or gal with a keyboard and a penchant for social commentary, and I will make one (possibly gratuitous) assumption here, which is that there must be some reasonable way for a guy like me to approach the subject. Whether or not I find that approach in this post?

Well, let’s see…

What has me thinking about this? Well I just happened upon a Youtube clip from another white guy who took it upon himself to present a reasonable approach to this issue. Suffice to say, that I don’t think he managed it, and again, I don’t know that I’ll do much better myself. Still, I think the problems with his approach make a nice springboard for tackling the issue.

…or at least for addressing some of the problems frequently arising when those of us on the pale end of the privilege spectrum try to address the issue.

The video in question was produced by Eric Post, a military veteran also famous for this response to a flag burning protest. He has other posts, but these two seem to particularly resonate with the sentiments of quite a few people. In both cases, Post adopts what seems to be a fairly reasonable response to a (probably left-wing) challenge to the social order. In both cases, Post seems to dismiss the challenge altogether. He prefers constructive engagement to insults and (thankfully) violence, but the impact of both these videos would seem to be a clear rejection of the concerns and problems in question. It’s tempting to see his approach as positive, given the man’s general tone, but I think the most important thing here is to pay attention to the story he is telling. In both cases, he generates a rather one-sided narrative, and in both cases the appearance of reasonability provides him with a moral high ground denied to those he claims to be responding to.

Anyway, here is the video:

 

The first thing I want address here is the way Post frames the problem, the context he generates within which to discuss the issue. We don’t encounter the case for white privilege here in any direct sense. What we get in the video is Post telling us a story about a black guy who said something to him about ‘white privilege’. What we learn of the black man’s thoughts on the subject is what Post chooses to tell us. So, his own white privilege here gets a solid boost from the privilege he acquires as the narrator of this story. But how reliable is Post as a narrator? For all we know, he made the whole thing up, though I think it more likely he is taking more subtle liberties with the story-line.

As Post would have it, this is the story of him setting a man straight on the issue before they hug it out and wind up with a hopeful ending. That’s the kind of ending I would expect from a Disney movie or a television sitcom. Most verbal confrontations don’t follow such a neat pattern. People interrupt each other. In the rush of rapidly phrased arguments, points don’t quite get made the way you would want to make them. The other guy scores a good point or three as well, and some really important stuff just gets dropped while tangents take people into all manner of foolish places. Moreover, there is always a genuine prospect that each side in an argument will just end up talking past the other without engaging them in any meaningful way. The prospect that Post really did just have a nice conversation with a guy who took all his points with grace, and without rejoinder, before agreeing with him in the end strikes me as about as likely as any other happily-ever-after ending in any other story. Suffice to say that he’s asking his viewers to take an awful lot on faith.

It’s a bit much to ask.

More to the point, consider the nature of the encounter. This began at least as a petty insult, followed by at least the beginnings of a pissing contest (Post does tell us he got in the guy’s face). So, right away, the case for the existence of white privilege gets off to poor footing in this video. It enters the story as petty insult, an expression of personal animosity cast at a complete stranger. In effect, the issue emerges here as a sort of game piece played in a petty conflict over personal status.

Social justice, this ain’t.

Now, I have no doubt there are people who would do that, people for whom ‘white privilege’ is little more than an insult to be thrown at random white people, or at least those of us who get in their way. Whether or not Post’s account of the man’s behavior is accurate is one thing, but I think I’ve met a few people like that myself. The thing is that I’ve also met folks for whom this issue is NOT about humiliating anybody, and for whom this issue is an important obstacle to social justice.

… or as I like to call it, justice.

The notion of ‘white privilege’ connects to a broad range of other controversial topics associated with social justice, inequality, and all manner of things deep and divisive. I probably won’t be solving any of them in this blog post, and wouldn’t expect Post to solve them in his short video, but perhaps, that’s the problem. Post does solve these issues, or at least he pretends to solve them insofar as he explains them away and replaces the whole issue with a quick motivational lesson shaped for the benefit of black people and liberals everywhere. This would be an impressive accomplishment, but it isn’t, because the problems he pretend to solve never amount to much more than a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street. If this isn’t a straw man, it’s certainly a whipping boy. Just an easy set up easily smacked down, and narrative easily applied to all those complex issues Post hasn’t really addressed at all.

The problem here isn’t entirely contained in the video. If folks would treat this as a random encounter with a random jerk whose particular flavor of jerkitude just happened to be racial politics, then perhaps we could file the whole thing under guilty pleasures of little or no consequence. But that isn’t happening. No, this is one of many videos out there which  circulate around the net under the guise of substantive commentary about the notion of white privilege. A white guy whitesplains away the whole issue through a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street and a good chunk of the internet says ‘huzzah’!

This isn’t solution. It’s avoidance.

So, how does Post dispense with the issue? He begins by telling us he has had some problems of his own in life, and yes, these do seem like serious problems. He goes on to lecture the man from his story on the need to be realistic about his job prospects and to educate himself properly for the kind of job he hopes to do. In effect, Post is saying that white privilege is a myth, and that the difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is a function of the effort they put into life.

As an answer to the problem of white privilege, this seems to be equal parts straw man and false dichotomy. Simply put, success isn’t either race or effort. It’s a function of both (and a lot of other things).  If the black man in Post’s story is wrong, then so is Post, bearing in mind, of course that this whole thing is Post’s story. In effect, it is a story about the choice between two different kinds of mistake, and that is all that Post seems capable of understanding about the matter.

This brings us back to the concept of ‘white privilege’ itself. What does the phrase mean? I’ve heard people use it in at least three different ways. Some clearly use the phrase to suggest that white people are categorically better off than others, that we all have a better shot at success (through no credit of our own) simply by being white. This approach would seem to dismiss the significance of any mere white-people-problems and sweep any advantages enjoyed by any particular non-whites under the rug. If mileage may vary, this way of talking about white privilege doesn’t acknowledge any variance outside the boundaries of a clear case that some people (white ones) have it better than all the others. I don’t think this way of talking about the issue stands up to scrutiny all that well, but it’s a sense of the phrase that is well suited to insult contests and generally morbid reflections about personal status, hence it’s appearance in Post’s story, and hence the ease with which he dispatches it.

A second approach would be to suggest that white people enjoy an advantage on account of being white. How this particular privilege stacks up against the other advantages and disadvantages that individuals experience in life is another question altogether. One needn’t deny that white people have our own problems or that some individual minorities may have some clear benefits in their own personal lives. Hell, we don’t even need to deny that there may be contexts in which being a member of a minority could actually be an advantage. It is enough to say that being white can help out in some ways. This approach seems more reasonable, but it achieves the reasonability at the expense of weakening the proposition quite a bit. It’s particularly attractive to white liberals such as myself, who may want to acknowledge privilege while minimizing its importance in our lives. “…yeah, I caught a break by being white, but let me tell you about this other personal hardship, and look at you, you got all this.”

…which is why most who talk about white privilege would step the whole thing up a notch and insist that in the grand scheme of things whiteness weighs rather heavily against those other factors. It still may be that particular white people have real problems and particular non-white people may have real privileges of their own, but in the grand scheme of things race is more likely than not to play a significant role in determining one’s status in life. In other words, whiteness may be one of many variables, but it is often the decisive variable in getting a job, getting a house, talking to a police officer, or any number of things that affect peoples wealth and well-being (not to mention their lives). This third approach is, I think the more serious of the three. It isn’t really all that different from the second approach, except insofar as it insists on the relative importance of whiteness in relation to other variables.

Suffice to say that Post’s argument wouldn’t touch either of the last two approaches to the subject of ‘white privilege’. Whether real or imagined, his adversary in the story isn’t up to the task of clarifying the issue, or if the real person did do that, suffice to say that it didn’t make it into Post’s own version of the story. It couldn’t, because Post’s story was always a story about a pissing contest, about a conflict over personal dignity. The antagonist in Post’s story was never going to accomplish anything more than gain a smug sense of satisfaction out of his insult, and so nothing rides on the ‘white privilege’ message but personal vindictiveness. Post is the only one with a dignified goal in the story, and that is true regardless of the (de-)merits of anyone’s thoughts about white privilege.

The reasonability with which Post approaches the issue is illusory; it’s simply a function of the story-line. Notice how he takes it upon himself to lecture the other man about the nature of taxes. Because of course the man he is talking to wouldn’t understand that his government check is paid for by private citizens. This is a common theme among ‘conservatives’ and radical right wingers these days. They like to imagine liberals and minorities in the form of the unemployed demanding government aid. The prospect that a gainfully employed person might advocate the social safety net is a possibility increasingly escaping their own narratives about government and economics. This story facilitates that trend by telling us about an individual who literally occupies that very place in life, and of course it compounds that narrative by enabling Post to explain the nature of taxes to the man as though he’d never thought about it himself. Post is reasonable in the story, because that’s how he tells the story, but in effect it is a story about a black man who doesn’t understand his own situation at all. The cherry on top of this condescending pie is the fact that it’s a white guy explaining it all; in effect whitesplaining white privilege to the clueless minority who hasn’t the faintest idea how to take care of himself.

Of course it is possible that the whole encounter is real and that Post’s account of it is essentially accurate, but once again we have to consider the larger presentation. What makes this video powerful is precisely the way it fits in with the larger narratives of right politics in America. Post winds up the theme by telling the man (or telling us that he told the man) to stop lying to himself. In telling the narrated man to stop lying to himself about his own welfare, Post is effectively telling anyone who supports aid to the poor and/or concerns about social justice to stop lying to ourselves. In effect, this is but another story about lazy minorities who blame others for their own lack of effort along with the foolishness of anyone who would humor them. Reasonable tone aside, Post is pushing an explicitly racist message here.

Which brings me to another point, a larger one about the nature of privilege. One of the reasons the notion of  ‘white privilege’ is so threatening to so many is because it undermines the meaning of success in a meritocracy. It runs contrary to the norms about success and failure in both mainstream liberalism and conservatism Whatever any of us has in America, we typically want to believe we have earned it. That goes without saying. It’s what the money in our bank accounts a little more meaningful than they would be for practical reasons. It’s what makes the houses we live in personal statements and the televisions we watch measures of personal merit. We have these things because we earned them.

But what if we haven’t?

What if our success (in whatever way we define it) is due in part to some break we didn’t earn? That’s a damning prospect. It stings a little, even for hose not so very adverse to messages about social justice. But for the true believers in their own success, for the fundamentalists of the free market this is outright heresy. We cannot admit of anything like white privilege or any number of social factors that might play a significant role in determining our lot in life. For the true believers amongst us, that way lies madness! Hence, the initial problem of this story!

…not the insult.

…the car.

Post begins this story, sitting (as many of his posts do) in a car, telling us about his favorite car. Presumably, he is proud of his seat in this car. Presumably, he feels he has earned that seat. I don’t think that’s an accident. Whatever the significance of white privilege for African-Americans or any other minority, in this story, it is the threat to the moral significance of a nice car that is really at stake.

This is the real threat to acknowledging white privilege. for Post. It could mean, he hasn’t really earned that car, or perhaps anything else in life.The issue isn’t whether or not white privilege can explain any measure of social inequality, it is whether or not it leaves intact the moral value of consumer products.

So, it’s rather fitting that Post takes time to provide the man in his story with a kind of motivational lesson. According to Post, the central lie that both he and the man in his story were told (by whom he doesn’t say) is the notion that one must work to achieve happiness. The truth, he says is just the reverse. In this respect, he isn’t all that far from the Puritans of old, worrying about the apparent elect (also a class defined in part by worldly possessions in elation to some imagined moral characteristic). Post is just one among many to suggest that wealth is somehow a function of character.

The problem of course is that it’s not that simple. Personal resilience can explain a lot, but it doesn’t explain everything. Time and again, studies have shown that minorities and women (among other groups) face real obstacles to success in the work place, the housing market, and any number of contexts affecting their economic well-being. Some flourish anyway, and that’s a damned good things. But it’s an insidious logic that turns this into an argument to be used against those that don’t. It’s all well and good to tell people they should do whatever it takes to overcome those obstacles in their personal lives (although doing so often assumes an air of unearned authority on the topic), but I can’t help feeling that one of the many things people ought to do toward overcoming those obstacles is address them on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean spitting insults at white people who drive nice cars, but it does mean challenging white privilege as it plays out in various contexts of modern life.

And no, that doesn’t mean anybody should be ashamed of any privilege they may enjoy in life. It does mean we ought to be careful how we use it. If Post, for example, really does help an unemployed black man get ahead in life, I’d say that’s a damned good use of his own position. Putting out a video demeaning to the status of minorities for the benefit of right-wing consumers isn’t. I’m not suggesting that those of us born into any kind of privilege ought to spend every moment of every waking day trying to figure out how to make it right for others, but we ought to be open at least to the prospect that there are real problems with the way identity shapes the prospects for success in life. Perhaps, we ought also to look for ways to change that.

It isn’t the universe, as Post suggests, whose justice is at stake; it is the communities in which we live. The universe may not owe anyone, but for those of us living in societies committed at least to equality in rights (if not wealth), I reckon we do owe others an even chance at earning a living.

Far from denying the importance of hard work and honest sweat; the point is to ensure that such things really do matter.

For everyone.

The Dumbitude is in the Details

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It’s always fascinating to see the slippage commonly coming between a story and its headline, and again between a headline and a social media message about it. The hackwits at Fox News are always happy to provide examples of this sort of thing. Last week I couldn’t help but gripe about their misrepresentation of a major story on twitter. Today, the angle isn’t all that clear, but sloppy slippage is a habit that seems to serve them well.

What got my attention a few minutes ago was this tweet:

FoxbonnieClyde

So, I see this and I am thinking; Really? I always thought Bonnie and Clyde were in their car when they were shot. Or was that just the movie? No, I’m pretty sure they were in their car. So, when was this? Just before they got in? How long before… No, this says the pic was taken was right before they were shot. But…

…and thus I clicked the link (which is admittedly to say that I fricking fell for this click-bait bullshit. Still kicking myself over that.)

So, anyway, and at the expense of providing a link to a common source of right wing propaganda, here is the story.

The opening passages of this story are fascinating in much the same sense that grading a freshman essay is often fascinating. By ‘fascinating’ I of course mean saddening. It’s not just the brief, blurby, writing style that jumps out at me. (Seriously, this is clearly written for people with the attention span of not-even-gerbils.) What really irks with a vengeance here is the complete inability to stick to a consistent account of the story.

Check it out!

BonClydestory

Mini-paragraph 2 says the photo was taken ‘days before’ Bonnie and Clyde were shot down. Mini paragraph 3 says ‘shortly before’. I guess ‘days before’ could count as ‘shortly before’, at least if you aren’t paying attention enough to wonder why they are re-framing the time-scale in the very next sentence. Most sensible people would think that was at least a little odd. And most sensible people would think that change of wording does shift the meaning, at least a little bit. Either way, it would certainly be a stretch to say that ‘days before’ counts as ‘right before’ or ‘moments before’, as indicated on the Fox News twitter account.

So why do this? It really doesn’t seem like deliberate spin. It seems more like a short attention span. Perhaps, it’s the habit of a mind accustomed to spinning an inch into a mile every chance it gets. These micro-shifts in meaning can be damned useful if you are spinning a story with a purpose. A mountain is easily reduced to a molehill with a little crafty word choice. The folks at Fox News are well accomplished at this technique. Still, it’s a little odd to see this much slippage crowded into such a small and simple account. The only clear pay-off in this particular instance is the added dramatic value of the click-bait, but even that doesn’t explain the shear quantity of equivocation in the Fox account. The story itself uses two different time-frames, and that shift isn’t explained by the desire to generate click-bait. Neither does the use of two different time-frames on the twitter account. A subtle shift is one thing, but these guys are all over the place. I find myself wondering if these folks can stick to a simple account even when they don’t have an axe to grind on the story.

Seriously, I can’t figure out how this will help to advance the war on the poor. Neither will it enable the Manchurian Man-Child to gin up a war to help keep all our minds off the Mueller investigation. I can’t even tell how this proves Hillary killed Han Solo in the living room with a candle stick. It’s not all that agenda driven. It’s just drivel-driven. it’s also a hell of a way to hack up a simple story.

…idiots!

 

 

Arts District, Los Angeles

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20046668_10213715189019056_3737017398696896189_nLong before Moni and I took to the road to spend this last July in New Mexico, I spent a couple months with her and her family down in San Dimas, California.

I’m usually a little lost in big cities. Vegas would be an exception, because it was once home, but usually cities make me a little uncomfortable. You see more people in 5 minutes down there in L.A. than you will up here in months on the North Slope (and that’s just on a quick trip to Target). I find it all just a little bit disconcerting.

Still, the big cities do have their strong points…

Oh yes, they do!

(click to embiggen!)

Credible Story Not Required

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If you have been following the news, you’ve probably heard that fake journalist James O’Keefe and his organization, Project Veritas, have been out spreading the stupid again. Apparently, they approached the Washington Post with a fake story about Roy Moore molesting yet another underage girl. The goal here was clearly to poison the well for all those women who have already come foreword (and perhaps any who might be thinking about it) by showing just how easy it is to get fake accusations into the media. One clearly fake accusation would, so they clearly hoped, go a long way to dilute the impact of any standing accusations from credible sources.

Only the Washington Post was wise to the con and busted them good.

So, you might wonder, how the right wing propagandists might deal with this set-back? How would they handle the apparently loss of this narrative?

Fox and Moore

Apparently the folks handling the Twitter account at Fox News deal with it by telling the same story anyway.

(Too bad the guy posting the story and the one posting the blurb in the video aren’t on the same page. Still, the disconnect between the actual story and the tweet is pretty damned telling.)

The Murals of Española

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22426453_10214539482825886_622094195494757406_oRegular readers may have noticed already, but when I (and now Moni too) experience a bout of southiness, we frequently do this somewhere in the southwest. Santa Fe is a common destination. We mostly travel through nearby Española on our way up to Taos, Pueblo, but this last summer, we also traveled through on our way up to Ghost Ranch, and that meant going though more of the town. The murals were very cool!

Moni gets mad at me when she sees these, because she doesn’t remember many of them. I think she was on the phone while I ran loose with a camera.

So, brought to you with just a trade of schadenfreude, the murals of Española!

(Click to embiggen)

 

 

You Otter See the Whales in Sitka

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23154906_10214694818949192_3124333924529284067_oSo, I flew out from Barrow a couple weeks back to spend a few days at a conference (Whalefest) in Sitka. I don’t get to spend much time in southwest Alaska. When I fly out, I generally go through Anchorage and then down to the lower 48. I can visit the villages of the Northslope about as often as I care to, and I can often spend extra time in Fairbanks or Anchorage, but a chance to veer off into the southeast is a rare treat.

To say that Sitka is beautiful is putting it more than a little mildly. It really is gorgeous. In the end I found myself plotting various schemes to stay longer, or to come back. Moni couldn’t be talked into spending Thanksgiving down that way, something sensible about money and inconvenient flight times, but I’d still give up a turkey for a few free days in this town, preferably while the humpback whales are still in town.

Which reminds me, whalefest did (oddly enough) include a chance to go on a whale-watching cruise. Grumbly me, wasn’t all that eager to get on a whale-watching boat. I get seasick easily and the last time I did that with my family in Hawaii, we barely saw a tail come up out of the water. This time was different, though, remarkably different!

So, yeah, that was cool!

DSC04103My accommodations were at the old Sheldon Jackson College. The campus itself was beautiful. I wandered into the Sheldon Jackson Museum a couple times and found myself spending way more time in there than I originally planned. I also got to the totem park (otherwise known as the Sitka National Historic Park. I definitely needed more time in both those spots.

 

The conference itself was a fascinating mix of presentations on a diverse range of subjects. Oh yes, whales were the dominant theme, but speakers also addressed issues such as climate change, biology of other sea mammals, and sundry things-oceanic. The keynote speaker, Jacquelyn Gill, gave a wonderful talk on climate change and extinction, or rather persistence.

At some point I took a longish walk and found myself watching a sea otter playing in the harbor. It’s an oddly calming thing, just snapping amateurish pictures of an otter, waiting for him to do something interesting, like bring up another shellfish.

…just like the last one.

Damned cute, these little buggers!

It hasn’t escaped me that this is the Alaska that most people think of when I tell them I live in this state. They imagine trees and mountains, and moose, and bears, and all-manner of different forms of wildlife. My own experience of the state is very different, but that’s to be expected. Alaska is a whole buncha cool states.

Ah well, I really must get back to Sitka some time.

And to Whalefest!

Anyway, click to embiggen!

Fundamentalism by Proxy and the Guilting of the Godly

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A general suspicion of religion comes to mind easily enough. Hell, even religious people frequently exhibit this suspicion (tempered as it is with whatever thoughts they’ve assembled into their own beliefs). There is something about the whole range of religious beliefs as such that invites a degree of doubt, even contempt. It would be easy to believe religion could be refuted.

Easy.

Just like nailing jelly to a wall.

What makes this seemingly easy task so frustrating is the sense that any generalization one might make about religion will most certainly have its counterexamples, and most of these exceptions are anything but marginal. Even belief in God or gods which seems such a no-brainer falls apart when we consider various branches of Buddhism. Belief in the supernatural is rather complicated by those who think of spirits as part of the natural world. Some of us may regard the notion of spirits in a mountain top as falling outside the natural world, but it doesn’t really work to maintain that belief in a supernatural world is a defining feature of religion if that belief itself isn’t all that universal. The particulars just don’t rescue the narrative. …and so-on with any other effort to sweep the lot of religious beliefs into the same been-there-refuted-that bin. What is religion? Hard to say. Harder still if you’re answering that question in the midst of a polemic moment.

Luckily, this problem is easily solved by focusing on one set of religious traditions instead of trying to drop a truth bomb on the lot of them. Can’t nail down every faith out there with one stroke of the hammer? No problem. Just pick one. Specificity will save us all!

…except that it won’t.

Let’s say you think the God of Abraham is a right cruel bastard, and so that’s your main objection to the whole of Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism). You can even throw in a few scriptures to back this up (cause that seems to be how the Biblical game is played), and we non-believers are often happy to play along, arguendo, so to speak. The godless corners of the net are filled with various references to God’s more dickish behavior, all documented nicely in the ‘Good Book’, and wielded well, these can form the basis for reasonably compelling arguments. We can even extend the critique into any number of horrible things Christians have done in the name of the great big bastard in the sky. We can work up a real parade or horribles and say ‘that’s it1’ That’s why the God of Abraham isn’t welcome in our lives and our thoughts. We can do this. Hell, I have done it. I”ve made this argument quite a few times since going godless many decades ago. And I will say, that I think this approach can be used to skewer a particular brand of believer, one I’m pretty sure I’ve met in person more than a few times.

But what about those Christians who seem to find in the Bible a story of hope, love, and kindness? No, I don’t mean the footnote kind of godly affection that accompanies homophobic politics, paternalistic family norms, or just plain idiotic theodicies. I mean the kind of compassion that actually does put some believers in the streets fighting for the rights of others and defending the dignity of all manner of people. Those Christians do exist and they have their scriptures too, their theories, their angle on God, the universe, and even that annoying wasp nest under the front porch.

What are we to make of these Christians?

The Christian left was once a powerful force in American life, and we could do worse than to see it rise again. Don’t get me wrong; at his best Jesus is an ambiguous story for me, and not one containing a lot of factual weight, but if i was to pick a fight it wouldn’t be with the peace-love-dove set of Christians. When it comes to the things that matter most to me, I am as likely as not going to count them as allies. Damned good ones at that!

For the present, though, the question is what to make of the Christians who don’t fit the yer-a-jerk-and-so-is-yourGod narrative? How do we sort their significance in relation to the buggers who actually make life hard for those ‘sinner’s they claim to love after all. If the notion that God and his fan club are all a bunch of jerks is your go-to argument when explaining active resistance to religion, then these guys are actually kind of a problem.

…which is ironic to say the least.

A believer may have an out for this problem. She can tell us one version of Christianity (presumably her own) is genuine and the other is just bullshit. How we may ask? And scripture, she may answer, which theoretically means the whole issue stands or falls on those passages Christians are find if quoting at each other and the rest of us. A believer can insist that the right answer is contained in those scriptures (or something else in her faith), and that the rest is simply noise. Whether she is right or not about the nature of that correct view is another question, but so long as someone affirms a particular faith, this approach isn’t glaringly inconsistent. But as a man who denies the authority of scripture (among other religious authorities) I’m not really in a position to do that. Sure, I can formulate ideas as to whether or not any given interpretation of scripture is plausible given the text and its historical significance, but I can find no authority with which to say anyone oughtta give a damn about that assessment.

More than that, I see no reason to believe there is any consistency to scripture with which to settle questions about what is and what isn’t a truly Christian take on the subject. Really, I think it far more likely, that the whole mess of scripture really is just that full of contradiction because what the hell else would you expect if a giant text cobbled together from a vast range of different authors writing at different times and places?

…which reminds me of one of those teachable moments a high school student once handed me. (In this case, I was the teachee.) I can’t remember how the subject came up, but I asked an orthodox Jewish kid something about how he viewed some particular theme in the Bible. He responded by telling me that there is no ‘the Bible’. To him, that phrase denoted an odd collection of texts, some of which might bear some relation to those his own people valued and some clearly didn’t, but the notion that the whole collection could be meaningfully referenced as though it were a single book seemed rather foreign to him.

It should have been foreign to me too.

We unbelievers give up far too much ground by speaking about ‘the Bible’ in this way.

This is of course a very incomplete account of the variation, even within Christianity. The whole mess gets meta-messy when we start adding differences of opinion as to whether or not scripture is the sole source of authority on what is right and what isn’t. What do we make of those who recognize the authority of the Pope? …of the Mormon Prophets? …or even the notion that one must be filled with the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture properly? All of these can turn the tables on any attempt to arrive at a fixed notion of just what it is we are rejecting when we say ‘no’ no God.

In any event, I see no reason to believe we can find a consistent message in the myriad scriptures folks are prone to cite in the effort to decide what a Christian ought to believe. For me, there is no ought to the matter. There is only what different believers do in fact believe and the mix of reasons and choices that go into their professions of belief. (Hell, I’m not even sure how much to make of beliefs, to be honest. What counts as doctrine on Wednesday is easily forgotten on Thursday. …on Friday it r-emerges as the subject of debate.) Anyway, I don’t see any hope of resolving questions about which is the true nature of Christianity.

…or of Islam.

…or Buddhism.

…or even pastafarianism for that matter.

I’m not saying the critique of Christian cruelty is a straw man. I am saying its relevance to any given believer depends on assumptions any given Christian may or may not hold.

This is often frustrating for an unbeliever. We have the goods on Tom and Jack, so to speak, so it just seems unfair to let Alice and Eric slide on account of a few disclaimers. But of course mere disclaimers aren’t the issue. It’s the very real possibility that someone’s faith may genuinely differ from that for which we have a ready critique. Of course we can ask any number of questions to see if someone really does envision Christianity in positive terms (as opposed to those who merely parrot the rhetoric of love and compassion all the while wielding the Prince of Peace like a well-balanced weapon, but at the end of the day? Some folks escape the criticism. Some folks really do seem to see in Christ a message that genuinely inspires love and compassion.

So what’s a godless bastard to do?

Unfortunately, I think the temptation exists to force the issue, to pretend we have some way of sorting the real thing from the imitation believer after all. It should come as no surprise that this rhetorical strategy usually means declaring the least defensible version of Christianity that we can imagine to be the real thing. All other variations, and in particular the more palatable variations on belief are then the product of personal whim. The kind Christian, so this narrative goes, is the one who really hasn’t read her Bible. She is the one who hasn’t really thought her doctrines through to their logical conclusions. I expect this kind of narrative from conservative Christians, but it’s a little more odd to hear it coming from the godless. It’s odd, yes, but it’s not rare. Unbelievers often take the view that Christians liberal in theology and politics aren’t the real ones.  Thus, we turn virtues into vices and snub allies away into likely resentment. (Who could blame them?) At worst, the effort to delegitimize moderate or liberal believers may well nudge one or three of them the other direction. It’s a kind of proxy-fundamentalism, a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of people whose views don’t fit the vision of Christianity we mean to attack.

A variation of this approach can be seen in the oft-repeated refrain that the only real Muslims are the militants. Those Muslims (indeed, the vast majority) who seem to get along with the rest of us haven’t got their own faith right, so the argument goes. And thus peaceful Muslims and violent extremists all falter beneath the weight of the same criticism. We can treat every Muslim as a would-be terrorist, so it seems, because those who haven’t come around to it simply aren’t doing their religion right.

Once again this approach assumes an objective limit on the range of legitimate variation within the faith in question. And once again, no such objective limit exists. You can haul out whatever quotes you want in support of it, but once again, the significance of those quotes rests on a number of assumptions, assumptions that just aren’t uniform throughout the Muslim world. So, why advocate for the bastards when we could support decent folks who just want to get through the day.

There is simply no way around it. If ever there was a term for which ‘family resemblance’ provided a more suitable account of its meaning I don’t know what that is (maybe ‘culture’). Religion as a whole can take many different forms, as can just about every individual religion. We can respond to each individual variant as we like, but there is no use shoring up the authority of those who serve as the main targets of our criticism. We certainly shouldn’t be helping the greatest assholes in God’s many fan clubs to marginalize decent people. The plasticity of religion is itself a potential objection in itself, at least to those who think it a bastion of objective morality, but that too is just another subset of believers out there. My point is simply that the variation is there, and that those of us who say ‘no’ shouldn’t be too quick to add our own voices to those seeking to impose orthodoxy on the faithful.

Taking off from Barrow.

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Apprapos of nothing, but I flew out of Barrow this Wednesday. I’m in Sitka for a conference (Whalefest). I’ll have more on that later, but for the moment, I thought I’d leave this little video of the up-and-away. The ocean back home is still in liquid form right now (or at least it was when we took-off), but it sure does look a little frosty around the edges.

Yep, that’s all folks.

A Helpful Message that Ain’t

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Sure am glad I noticed this safety warning.

…while driving down the road in the middle of a snow storm.

Thank you anonymous person behind this message. Without your efforts, I never would have taken my eyes off the road to find out what necessitated this urgent warning known that I should take my eyes off the road while driving.

The Message in Itself

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From the Mission District in San Francisco

I’m beginning to think that left wing politics is the object of a higher grasp, so to speak, or at least that this is how it must appear to its critics. There are those, of course, who simply reject left wing politics outright. Hell, there are those for whom scorn of left wing politics is a favorite sport. But what really fascinates me about the response to various left wing messages are the number of people who can’t quite bring themselves to say ‘no’ outright. Instead, they have all sorts of advice for the lefties among us. You’d almost think these critics were down to help, assuming of course that help means something else.

And by ‘something else’, I mean, something other than anything actually requested at any particular time. The ‘else’ in this case is that ineffable thing in itself. Whatever thing, a lefty actually wants to see done today, that is surely out of the question. But something else? Some other request or demand, made by some other person in some other way…

I expect the folks in the not-your-mascot movement could write a book about all the helpful suggestions they’ve gotten over the years. Instead of protesting a football mascot or opposing a team name, so the thinking goes, y’all should be fixing the reservations, feeding the hungry in Native American communities, and just generally doing practical things to help indigenous people. Rarely do those offering such advice take stock of the actual efforts of such activists to help out their communities, and these critics don’t seem at all impressed by the many Native American activists who say that issues like derogatory sports teams may have something to do with the larger problems facing their people. No, the response is as simple as it is common. Stop protesting and go do something more helpful.

I hope I’ll be excused for suspecting that the ‘stop protesting’ is a little more important to those offering such advice than the “go do something more important.”

Those taking a knee at football games have certainly received similar advice. People just want to watch the game, so they are told. This isn’t the right time to protest, and when the National Anthem is playing, well then, that CERTAINLY isn’t the right time to protest! Anyway, this is all much too divisive. You’ll only alienate people. The players protesting are rich and pampered anyway, so what do they have to protest? If they want to help out more, then they should donate money and do charity work in their own communities.

You read all this stuff, and you might be tempted to think some of these critics aren’t open to concerns about possible police abuse at all, but surely that isn’t the case! Those criticizing protesters couldn’t be more clear about their willingness to consider the issue.

On another day.

In another context.

With a different messenger.

After that messenger has done a certain number of other things to earn their respect.

On this last point, you might be tempted to suggest that people like Colin Kaepernick have indeed given to charity and actively worked to help those in need, but of course this is missing the point. Clearly, he and those with him need to do more. If they do more, then people will listen to them.

Yep!

…just not during the Anthem.

Every major mass-shooting seems to trigger a wave of similar advice. Don’t politicize this! It’s too soon! Now is not the time to raise questions about gun control. Nope! Not now. Not yet.

…maybe later.

So, it seems that America might one day have a serious talk about gun control. It will have to be scheduled during an intermission of indeterminate length between actual mass shootings. This will of course require the cooperation of mass shooters, because they will have to create a pause in the carnage of sufficient length to allow the keepers of the conversation to make the call. It’s not clear just how long we must all wait between shootings, but presumably when the time frame is reached, the keepers of the conversation will proclaim the moment and we can begin to deal with the issues in a serious manner. Surely, they will tell us, when it is time! This whole too-soon thing couldn’t just be a stalling tactic. They will tell us when it is time. Until then, well, it is just to soon.

Hell, it’s too soon to ask if it’s to soon.

Shame on you for wondering about it!

Of course, one might be excused for thinking that the moment any of these conversations could take place (when the issues aren’t in the news and at events people aren’t paying attention to) would in effect constitute precisely the sort of time when the public finds the whole topic easiest to ignore, but such thoughts are far too cynical! Surely, all this advice is sincere. Surely, all these people telling us its the wrong time and the wrong message mean what they say.  If only the right version of any of these messages reached their ears and eyes, they would happily consider the whole thing.

But that never seems to happen!

The actual left wing politics that we see in America is just just a little too human to be worthy of consideration. The real message, the ones so many keep saying they would consider, always seem to rest out there somewhere in the world of possibility, just a bit beyond the grasp of mere mortals. If only we could ever confront that message in itself, the real message, the properly timed message, phrased in just the right way, and put forward by the right person with just the right presentation to be worthy of consideration. Hell, I don’t know that the left wing messages could or even should win out in such an event (a lot depends on the particulars), but that’s rather academic at this point, because the time is not yet right. Under the right conditions, so it would seem, we could at least consider those lefty messages. Until then? Well, we all seem to have better things to do.

You know, like sitting on our couches watching other people do stuff.

And drinking beer.