Why progressives need to support Obama now more than ever

August 22, 2012

I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic on my Facebook feed called “Liberals Need to Start Holding Obama Responsible for his Policies” by Conor Friedersdorf. And I found the article to make a lot of sense. In fact, I’ve been making similar arguments for the past few years. And had this article been published last year or the year before, I’d have no disagreement with the author. However, not this year. This year is different.

It’s true that Barack Obama has been too often a disappointment for progressives, be it his compromises on healthcare that took the single-payer plan off the table, or his record deportations, or his failure to prosecute those bankers whose fraud caused the economic crisis, or his continuing of the War in Afghanistan, or his continued support of countless Bush policies like the “War on Drugs” and abstinence-only sex ed classes, or the drone strikes against innocent civilians. Take your pick.

But this is an election year. And that changes things.

I’m all for criticizing Obama for his failure to fight for the progressive policies he promised. But I don’t think this is the time to START holding Obama responsible for his bad policy decisions. During the first three years in a term seems the best time to hold Obama responsible for bad calls. But come election year, that’s when I think the focus should be on criticizing the far worse of the two evils. Strategically, it’s best for progressives to stand behind Obama for the next few months. Then after the election, we can give him hell again.

Now let me be clear here. This is not a free pass, but a stay of execution until November. What good will come out of increasing Romney’s chances of victory?

Unfortunately, it’s either Obama or Romney at this point. In an ideal world, there’d be more options on the table, but in an election year particularly, we’re prisoners of the system. Too late to introduce a true progressive third party alternative who could plausibly win the presidency and too late to redirect the Democratic Party’s platform. If Obama were to suddenly turn super-progressive tomorrow, his campaign would suffer from accusations of being a flip-flopper. No, now’s the worst time to attack Obama’s policies if the goal is a progressive presidential cycle for the next four years.

The day after Obama wins reelection, I say go to town on his bad decisions. And maybe then, if we push him and the press hard enough, we’ll have a chance at getting a few important policy decisions go our way or, though very unlikely, even get Obama to make changes to help fix the system like he promised. But neither of those options exists with Mitt Romney in the White House. He’s even more bought by the corporations than Obama and even more motivated to push conservative social and fiscal policies.

All evidence suggests a Romney presidency would continue to marginalize women, LGTB Americans, and every other minority group. They’ll likely continue to deregulate the market and make it easier for the super-rich to profit off the poor and middle class. They’ll likely promote a science policy that undermines climate change research and the teaching of evolution in schools. Whatever you might think of Obama, by all indication, a Romney presidency will almost certainly be disastrous.

The time to fight Obama in this term is over. Progressives who care more about the cause than shaming the president need to put the pitch forks down for now and support Obama now more than ever. Then after he wins, feel free to let him have it.

Advertisements

Has the skeptical movement failed?

August 8, 2012

The skeptical movement has been behaving in very self-destructive behavior over at least the past year as cults of personality and bitter rivalries have sprung up while those screaming the loudest on different sides of numerous issues have been allowed to dominate the conversation.

Just one recent example of this was highlighted when Ian Murphy penned a rather weak piece on Alternet that called out five individuals as The 5 Most Awful Atheists. There’s been much criticism about the rather subjective criteria Murphy used as well as his over-simplification of the views of several individuals on his list.

Well now Sam Harris, one of the alleged “awful” atheists on the list, has responded not just to this piece but to much of the recent criticism he’s received as well as the larger problem of internet critics with the ability to potentially smear a person’s name forever with the total freedom to make any accusation they wish. Now I don’t agree with Harris on everything. For instance, I do take issue with his current positions on torture and profiling. However, I also recognize that his position is far more nuanced than Murphy’s article and many of Harris’ critics let on. And I think to some degree Harris is willing to engage in civil discourse on these subjects. But I also think simply writing Harris off as a monster or a racist or a fascist or whatever does a great disservice to the conversation and to the rationalist goal of building a society on reason and intellectual discourse. But that being said, I’m not so sure Harris would easily change his mind when confronted with compelling evidence against his position. If he would, I surmise he’d have changed his position already given the currently available facts of the matter.

Harris also calls out PZ Myers for allegedly contributing to gross misrepresentations of Harris’ positions. And in these criticisms, Harris doesn’t pull his punches. Nor did Myers when responding to Harris’ condemnation. And it’s in these sorts of back-and-forths that I’m sadly reminded of the Joker’s line from the film, The Dark Knight about what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an unmoveable object. I suspect neither side of this rivalry will back down any time soon.

And that brings me to the thesis of this piece here. Shouldn’t we expect more from so-called skeptics and rationalists?

It’s unfortunate that supposedly rational atheists are utterly incapable of engaging in civil discourse when faced with disagreements and instead ultimately always choose the least rational approach of treating all disagreements as giant pissing contests where it’s far more preferable to vilify the other and score points before one’s fans than be seen trying to actually understand where the other party is coming from and find common ground. Rationalists should welcome civil disagreement, not attack it as if it were the enemy.

And skeptical audiences should cheer the moments when our peers admit being proven wrong, not the moments of grand-standing and bloviation. Until that starts to happen, this movement is at best failing in its mission and at worst a fraud.

George Sanayana once said that fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while forgetting their aims. Have the most prominent figures in our movement done just that? And if they have, where do we go from here?


On Chick-Fil-A, bigotry, and absurd rationalizations

August 1, 2012

I’m going to take it as a given that everyone has heard about the recent controversy surrounding the fast food restaurant, Chick Fil-A, and so I’m not going to rehash the whole story. What I want to talk about is bigotry and why some non-bigots express their willingness to continue to frequent Chick Fil-A.

Now I’ve heard A LOT of people feed me A LOT of different reasons for why there’s nothing unethical or political about their decision to continue giving money to Chick Fil-A. In every single case, however, it all boiled down to rationalizations and excuses. The fact is that when someone starts feeding you their personal line about why it’s okay for them to buy Chick Fil-A even though they’re in favor of marriage equality and civil rights, what they are really telling you is:  I enjoy that chicken sandwich so much that I will keep buying it NO MATTER WHO IT HURTS.

And make no mistake. When you buy Chick Fil-A, you’re not just giving money to a bigot, but rather you are indirectly funding organizations who are actively engaged in trying to curtail civil liberties in Washington. These organizations spend millions campaigning to influence public policy in order to prevent marriage equality. And without your money, they simply can’t do that.

So if your craving for this one fast food joint trumps accepting responsibility for contributing in some small way to causes that you very well know hurt people, then it’s become a dangerous addiction. In a way I think the same could be said with another issue that’s been back in the news lately, America’s obsession with guns despite the undeniable harm that produces. But this isn’t a piece on gun regulation, so let me get back on track.

One actually reasonable argument I’ve heard against a boycott is that obviously not all Chick Fil-A franchise owners and employees agree with CEO Dan Cathy’s position, and while Dan Cathy isn’t likely to go broke, the innocent may be the ones most hurt by such a boycott. But you can say that about any organization, and on those grounds, it’s never acceptable to fight any corporation. I tend to liken it to the famous scene in the film Clerks, when they discuss the independent contractors working on the second Death Star, who certainly died when the rebels destroyed it (spoiler alert):

Chick Fil-A’s overly Right-Wing Christian values are well known and anyone who would choose to invest in a Chick Fil-A franchise would have to be an idiot to have not done any research at all. And surely employees aren’t blind to the company’s politics. So when you get in bed with a business like that, like the Death Star contractors, you knew the risks when you took the job.

One interesting aspect to this whole controversy is how quickly Republican politicians who have probably never eaten at a Chick Fil-A before in their lives have come out in support of the fast food chain via Twitter, mostly with passive aggressive tweets about how they’re at this very moment eating at Chick Fil-A with their families. Ironically, Sarah Palin did this as well mere weeks after the world was shocked when her toddler bastard of a grandson called his aunt a “faggot” on television. Wonder where the kid picks up this sort of stuff. Kinda reminds me of that old drug PSA from the 80’s where the kid is asked by his father where he learned about drugs and the kid famously replies, “From you, alright! I learned it from watching you!”

The less passive approach has also been quite popular among conservative pundits like Michelle Malkin, who, as recently as today, decried calls to boycott Chick Fil-A as a “war on Christian businesses.” Funny how nobody is calling to boycott any other Christian-owned or run businesses, not even ones whose CEOs are openly anti-gay. Some war, huh. That’s like insisting after the BP oil spill of 2010, that angry protests against BP are a war on business run by white people. It’s also ironic how conservatives are usually the ones who most insist letting the free market decide is the answer to all our problems and that there’s no crying in politics. What happened, tough guys? Suddenly, when the market of public opinion has ruled against the GRAND Old Party, all we hear is whining about what big meanies the Left is and that darned Christian persecution that’s so rampant in this country. When Democrats called the Republican’s consistent pushing of policies that infringe on women’s rights a “War on Women,” the GOP condemned such sensational language. But now a proposed boycott by Christians and non-Christians alike against a single company that donates millions of dollars to organizations promoting bigoted legislation is suddenly a “war on Christian businesses”?  Give me a break. And of course the height of the irony comes from those on the Right who have directly called this proposed boycott itself an act of “intolerance.”  Moreover, Mike Huckabee tweeted today that eating at Chick Fil-A is supporting free speech. But free speech is FREE; spending millions on bigoted public policy is corporate thuggery.

Now, all that’s not to say I don’t agree with the Right with regards to news that certain city officials have tried to exile Chick Fil-A from their cities. For the record, I do think that constitutes as an abuse of political power. The only good thing I have to say about that is that it’s at least refreshing to see the so-called “culture war” or public opinion, so dramatically shift in favor of equality and LGBT-acceptance.

Now, to return to a point I only casually made two paragraphs earlier, there are just as many Christians, if not more, who either disagree with Chick Fil-A’s policy or are more neutral. For instance, I read a piece the other day from a Christian moderate, Rachel Held Evans, on this very subject that tried really hard to find balance between the two most prominent sides in this debate. I for one think this is an issue where one side is right and the other wrong, where such attempts at neutrality just fail miserably. This is evident from the comments section of Held Evan’s piece. There were three positions represented:  the unambiguous bigots, those making excuses to justify having their precious chicken sandwich even though it hurts people, and then the far more thoughtful responses from people leveling what, in my opinion, is a devastating rebuttal to those positions.

Held Evans criticizes both sides. To those against Chick Fil-A, she decries the use of the words “bigot” and “homophobe” in their rhetoric, saying:

You have every right to be tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

I get it. I really do.

But I beg you to please remember that not all Christians who speak out against gay marriage are bigots or homophobes, and calling them those names is as unjust as it is unkind.

Now don’t get me wrong. I hear what Held is saying. I get it. I really do. I know her intentions are honorable.

But she’s dead wrong. This is a total false equivalency that only suggests she’s out of touch she is with the everyday realities of being part of such a marginalized class. Now I know there are many who would throw around the word “privilege” to explain her lack of awareness, but I’m not going to go there because, frankly, I don’t know what her life has been like. Certainly, as a woman, she too may have faced serious marginalization. And being a straight man myself, I can’t say I entirely understand what it’s like to be LGBT in America today.

But to return to Held Evan’s statement quoted above, to suggest that being called a bigot or homophobe, even if unjustified, is somehow “as unjust and unkind” as being  denied basic civil rights (a thing that she too acknowledges this is about in the very second sentence of her piece) is ridiculous. But the even bigger problem on display here is this implication (and maybe it’s unintentional) that nobody should ever be called a bigot or homophobe…even, you know, bigots and homophobes. Now certainly if you want to talk strategy in terms of trying to persuade bigots and homophobes to stop being such things, a legitimate conversation can be had regarding how persuasive such loaded terms are in changing the minds of bigots and homophobes. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.

The very first commenter on Held Evans’ piece, KatR, said it quite well:

No one is a racist any more, have you noticed this? When some city council member forwards some atrocious email and is called on it, the first thing he/she says is “I’m not a racist”. The word has become so loaded that in order to be classified as a “racist”, you need to be a full throated member of the KKK, participating in cross burnings and threatening lynchings.

I think Christians have gotten this way with the word “homophobe”.  They think its those horrible people at Westboro Baptist, not them voting to make prejudice a part of the state constitution, or giving money to pray the gay away groups. But they aren’t yelling and screaming at anybody! So it’s different.

I get it. I used to be a nice bigot too. But all of the flowery Scriptures and love the sin not the sinner in the world cant take away the fact that I was a bigot. And it’s not going to take it away from them either.

I almost wanted to paraphrase that but it was just too elegantly said as is that I didn’t even try. KatR just nails it right on the head with that one. That was immediately followed by this great comment from Kaoru Negisa:

I was just about to come here and point this out. Denying people rights is, by definition. bigoted. You can be sweet as a human being, but you’re still a bigot. You can help your neighbors, but you’re still a bigot. There is no getting around this.

Fred Clark already covered this very nicely, I think http://www.patheos.com/blogs/s…

I’m sure Rachel’s friends feel very bad about having to make other people’s lives measurably more miserable. But quite frankly I don’t much care that somebody’s feelings are hurt by being called a homophobe when they engage in homophobic behavior. Not so long as same-sex couples are not allowed to visit one another in the hospital or don’t get the same government benefits or are bullied and beaten up by those who live in a culture where they see the very existence of LGBT people as intrinsically wrong, regardless of the intentions of those who “simply disagree.”

When a person acts in a bigoted fashion, they are a bigot, regardless of the source of their bigotry. And they deserve to be called out on it.

Then when asked if both sides can be accused of being bigots, Negisa beautifully responded:

The key word is “prejudices”. Those are, as far as we understand language, pre-conceived notions on the behavior of people. However, the opposition to anti-LGBT activity is reactive. Gay people are not proactively looking to demean Christians, they are reacting to people who lie about them, condemn them, and oppose their legal equality. This is not some pre-conceived notion invented to demonize people, it’s a response to the demonization LGBT people receive on a regular basis.

Held Evans herself  chimes in on the comments with this:

I guess I feel like a better approach would be to begin with the assumption that many of the folks who oppose gay marriage don’t hate gay people, and then use that assumption as an appeal to urge them to support equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Option 1: “You’re against gay marriage so you must hate gay people.”

Option 2:”Because you don’t hate gay people, don’t you think they should be given the same basic rights that you enjoy?”

Maybe it’s too subtle a difference…or maybe it’s too stark. I guess I just feel like the conversation breaks down right off the bat when we start with Option 1 instead of Option 2.

Again, I hear what she’s saying and I think her heart is in the right place, but I think what she’s describing is a distinction without a difference because if we all agree that marriage is indeed a civil right (and again, she herself says as much right at the very start of the article), then the belief that one group that’s solely defined by a largely innate and uncontrollable characteristic that doesn’t hurt anyone should be denied that civil right is inescapably unfair, i.e. unjust. And while hypothetically, we can sit around and invent some imaginary alternative motivation for such a belief that doesn’t ultimately boil down to an unjustified belief in that group’s inferiority or “otherness,” all the excuses that have been so far presented have either been expressly expressed as homosexuality being viewed as sinful or unnatural, etc. or thinly disguised as such, as with the absurd literalist interpretation of the dictionary’s current definition of marriage. Now you could say that believing homosexuality is sinful, evil, or unnatural is not synonymous with “hating” gays. I don’t get the impression that Held Evans buys the “hate the sin, not the sinner” line of BS that are so prominent among Christian bigots, but the problem is see with her Option 2 is that I can’t even fathom what alternative reasonable reason one could devise for someone who thinks gays are equal citizens to everyone else to actively oppose them having the same basic rights. But as a skeptic, I must volunteer that this could be simply due to my own failure of imagination, so I’m certainly open to such alternative arguments.

And again, commenter Negisa, gave a wonderful reply to Held Evans in her comments section:

You’re talking about approach here, and I’m talking about reality. You’re right, there are times when calling a person a bigot for acting in a bigoted manner is not the right approach. Sometimes it is the right approach, and the realization of their own discrimination will snap them out of it. It’s a case-by-case thing.

What I was replying to was your statement that there are people who oppose marriage equality and aren’t bigoted or homophobes, and that’s impossible. As KatR alluded to, you can no more do that than post a Whites Only sign on your pool and claim to not be a racist (which happened in Ohio last year). I’m sorry your friends feel so bad about having to add to human misery, but they are adding to human misery in significant amounts. There’s no getting around that, and pretending that somebody can be against the rights of others and not be bigoted doesn’t help anyone.

To be fair, Held Evans does say a lot that I agree with too. She rightfully says we should all be concerned that public officials are trying to legislate away the bigotry, which could set a very dangerous precedent and can easily be exploited by propagandists who will point to it as alleged proof of a “gay agenda.”  She also rightfully says Christians ought not cry persecution and rightfully warns Christians that defiantly putting up Facebook pictures of themselves holding a Chick Fil-A bag may send a different and more hurtful message than they intend. And I absolutely agree with this advice of hers:

Finally, I urge you to take a few moments to listen to the stories of gays and lesbians who have been negatively affected by the organizations that are supported by Chick-fil-A. 

Really, my largest point of disagreement with Held Evans concerns what I feel is her letting the continued patrons off easy:

So, in short, you can choose to patronize Chick-fil-A without 1) rubbing it in people’s faces, 2) crying persecution, and 3) closing your ears to the concerns of others, particularly those from the LGBT community.

Related to this, there’s another moderate Christian take on this issue comes from Branson Parlor over at Think Christian. I get the sense that the fast food chain’s position leaves a bad taste in Parlor’s mouth but yet he still ends his piece with a rather misguided attempt to de-politicize his favorite chicken sandwich in order to rationalize his addiction to it NO MATTER WHO IT HURTS:

So, if I am hungry for a chicken sandwich, I will eat at Chick-fil-A. What is the meaning of this? Simply that I’m hungry for a chicken sandwich. If I want to watch the Muppets, I will. What is the meaning of this? Simply that I find the Muppets amusing. We typically do not ask about the religious affiliation of our plumbers, grocers, accountantsand mechanics because we recognize the reality of common grace. In a similar way, we should recognize that the political positions of our retailers, book-store clerks, Internet providers and pharmacists are not as big of a deal as we are often led to believe.

In the end, being pacifists in the culture wars may turn out to be the best way to embody the Christian worldview. Instead of worrying about winning, we can start to truly seek the shalom of the culture to which we’ve been sent.

He’s simply deciding to tune it all out so he doesn’t have to think about the consequences of his actions, where his money is going, or take personal responsibility in being complicit in injustice. He’s like a child putting his fingers in his ears, shouting:  “La, la, la, la, I can’t hear you!” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. As Uncle Ben so famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or how about Edmund Burke, who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or Christopher Hitchens, who said, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” I don’t think I have to remind my readers of how history has judged the bystanders around Dachau or Auschwitz, or Switzerland, who similarly chose to stay neutral.

A culture of injustice and bullying can ONLY exist so long as individuals are willing to put up with it. And choosing to sell the freedoms of others so you can enjoy some greasy chicken sandwich is a Faustian bargain that comes at too high a price, as my friend Mitch explains here.

And once again, another great commenter, James G. Gilmore, stepped up for a rebuttal to Parlor:

I take issue with your suggestion that some acts are inherently apolitical.

The choices we make about what we eat, what media we watch, what we buy, are inherently and always political choices, using a more expansive definition of the “political” in terms of the “polis”—anything implicating questions of how we organize and maintain society—rather than the narrow “partisan” usage.

When one buys a sandwich at Chik-Fil-A, one provides material support to a number of political (in the expansive definition) viewpoints—not just Dan Cathy’s opposition to LGBT equality, but also to American currency as valuable, to meat-eating, to CFA’s payment and treatment of their workers—in short, to the systems in which Chik-Fil-A exists. Buying a farmer’s market tomato, a McDonald’s burger, or a $100 bottle of wine is a similarly political act.

Many will probably say that I’m overdoing it with the previous Holocaust references because it’s just about some silly fast food joint, but injustice and unfairness must be challenged at every turn, big and small. To let it go because, “It’s not my problem,”  is to invite evil. And while you might not be the target this time, one day it might be you, and you’ll just have to hope others take your concerns more seriously than you did theirs.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Martin Niemöller

To anyone who continues to give them money while knowing full well that that money will be used to fund evil because, like Gollum with his “precious”, they just couldn’t resist the damned chicken, you are not neutral; you are an accomplice. Your choices have an impact and your excuses are no good here.