Let Slip the Reindeer of War

Seeing as how we are post-Thanksgiving, I think it’s safe to say that the War on Christmas has begun again. I’m woefully under armored for this particular fight, having no t-shirts or jackets that actively disparage religion or Christmas in general.

In fact, I am a pretty miserable soldier in the War on Christmas. Yes, I commit the unpardonable sin of saying “happy holidays,” but there are those like Richard Beck who claim that I am actually being less blasphemous by doing so.

It’s blasphemous to post “Merry Christmas” all through a shopping mall. It’s blasphemous to slap the name of Jesus on all the Xboxs, Playstations, iPhones, and High-Def TVs. “Happy Holidays,” while still not great given that I don’t like the word “holy” being involved, is much better than “Merry Christmas.”

And the association of “Merry Christmas” with the local, state and federal governments is just as problematic. The Nativity set in the town square is just as profane and blasphemous as the “Merry Christmas” on the Xbox.

In short, while I’m very happy to have a more tolerant and liberalized shopping experience during the holiday season (out of simple civic respect I don’t want my Muslim or Jewish neighbours to be greeted with “Merry Christmas”), my deeper concern is how the “War on Christmas” panic is inherently blasphemous and idolatrous.

Leave it to Beck to ruin my fun.

Though, I have to admit, it’s a rather quiet war this year. I mean, we’ve had some early volleys with Sarah Palin’s failed book and Rick Santorum’s failed movie (point of order: what idiot thought to release a contemporary Christian film in theaters instead of direct-to-DVD?), but for the most part we haven’t been given the Full Fox Press on every retailer that didn’t address their specific holiday consistently. Maybe because it’s still Hanukkah and it could be considered anti-Israel to ignore that as long as it doesn’t conflict with December 26th?

Either way, unless Christians find some new way to weaponize The Christmas Shoes this year (a collectable card game, maybe?), I’m planning a nice, relaxing holiday season where I don’t have to worry about being berated for not paying obeisance to the cobbled together remains of somebody else’s celebration. So, here’s just some of the things I plan to do this December.

1. Listen to Holiday Music – This can include a lot of things. I’m always looking for new versions of Good King Wenceslas, since that’s my favorite carol. Of course, I’ll probably work on trying to learn the perennially beautiful White Wine in the Sun. I’m a big fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s A Very Scary Solstice and An Even Scarier Solstice (my favorites are “Harley got Devoured by the Undead” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Yog-Sothoth”). Otherwise, whether they’re religious or not, I love Christmas carols and will spend the next month singing them to myself and anyone who stands still long enough to listen.

2. Watching Holiday Movies – When I was growing up, I had a VHS tape that was just loaded with holiday movies. Santa Claus: the Movie, A Chipmunk Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a number of others. I have since found digital copies of all of them seeing as I no longer own a VHS player and the tape is worn out anyway, and I make an effort to watch them all this month. I have since added a number of others. Alf’s Special Christmas is a tearjerker about love and life that shouldn’t come from a big nosed puppet Rodney Dangerfield rip-off.

The Muppets have so many Christmas specials it’s hard to watch them all (BTW: if you haven’t seen this year’s with Lady Gaga, watch it. It’s hilarious, and the gender-swapped “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect), but I try. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a must, however, and it’s something the whole family enjoys. In fact, part of the tradition is gushing with my father over how entertaining the rats are in that film.

A Claymation Christmas, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Christmas Vacation, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard. I love them all and can’t wait to be able to start watching through them this year.

3. Charity – I find myself more in need of charity than able to give it this year, but I still plan to work for local charities when I have the opportunity. By sheer luck, the restaurant the Dark Lord of Bakery works at got in contact with the person who runs a local battered women’s shelter, so I’m going to try to help them do fundraising for that group. I also won’t donate to the Salvation Army for obvious reasons, but I do make a point of noting how much money I would have given a bell ringer and, at the end of the season, donating that amount of a local charity, usually one that takes in homeless LGBT youth like the Zebra Coalition. And there are countless opportunities to do good all season long that I will try and avail myself of.

4. Spend Time With Loved Ones- The Sovereign of Aesthetics and the Bladed Poet are having a gathering at their home this year for us to get together, drink, sing, and play board games. So basically the same thing we do all year long, but I get to do it in a sweater, and I look amazing in sweaters. I also plan to go over there, in combination with #2 above, to show said Sovereign the Muppet/Gaga holiday special she missed. Plus I might make my family’s annual Christmas party this year, which is always fun. And for the holiday itself, it’s a big Italian meal at my parents’ house. So there will be plenty of time to socialize and enjoy the company of loved ones this year.

I could go on, but this is how I plan to fight the War on Christmas this year. More to the point, I plan on fighting it by doing basically the same things as the religious right professional martyrs do, but with no obligation to say “Merry Christmas” unless I feel like it. I encourage everyone, this holiday season, to use the greeting they feel comfortable with, accept other greetings in the spirit in which they were meant, and focus your ire on yelling at your family about health care reform, as is traditional.

Happy holidays to you all, and keep an eye out for more posts as I can.

Words Mean Things: “Out of Context”

We’re introducing a new feature on this blog called “Words Mean Things.” It’s where I explore various phrases that have come to be used in pop conversation as defensive or offensive rhetoric, but are completely divorced from any substantive meaning.

The inspiration for this feature and today’s entry comes in the comments for yesterday’s post about Dawkins. Quoted partially.

Way to take on [sic] paragraph out of context and write an essay condemning him. Do you have too much time on your hands?

I have since asked James for the context that makes his statements better and have received no reply, so I assume he’s merely been too busy.

However, there are many people far less scrupulous than James who don’t realize that “out of context” has a meaning and is not code for “thing that makes somebody sound bad.”

Let’s explore.

“Context” refers to the information surrounding something. Data is rarely clear in a vacuum, and is rather influenced by other data surrounding it that gives you, the observer, a sense of perspective by which you can accurately determine meaning from what you are seeing.

This is an aspect of science that particularly confuses Creationists. You see, when we discuss the mountains of evidence for evolution, we are talking about context. We understand how gravity and time work, for example, so we know that things on the bottom of piles got there first and are therefore older, so when we find a fossil that appears to be in an earlier stage of development for various traits buried deeper in the ground, we can draw a provisional conclusion that it may be a transitional fossil to something we found higher up from something that will be found lower. Keep in mind that this is a highly, highly simplified example.

Now, let us take that same fossil discovery and put it to a Creationist. Whether they want to admit it or not, for that discovery to not be consistent with evolution, either time or gravity would have to work differently in order to deposit fossils someplace in the ground that they wouldn’t otherwise be if they were consistent. So, Creationists often try to pick apart the validity of the find itself (often referring to Piltdown Man), rather than addressing that it was found exactly where we predicted it would be. That is taking out of context.

How about another example?

Out of context things are often used in the service of comedy. For example, one of my favorite Tumblrs is Archie Out of Context, which takes one or two panels from Archie comics and separates them from the rest of the comic, letting you draw your own, mostly sexual, conclusions. Here’s twenty that are absolutely hilarious, including a few of my favorites (“Oh! So Jesus is a giant Aspirin tablet!!!”).

One could also argue that the humor in comedies of errors results from taking things out of context. The Life of Brian is a great example, where we have poor Brian of Nazareth who is assumed to be the much hoped for messiah, despite nothing in his life indicating that this is the case. He’s a fairly unremarkable guy who has his every action re-written in order to fit the new context that others have developed for him, such as in this, one of my favorite scenes:

The “context” of the scene that we see is that Brian is running from a mob of fanatical devotees who want him to lead them, and he loses his shoe in the process. However, the zealots don’t understand that he is a normal guy with no wisdom to impart. They have taken the event out of the context of his life and inserted it into the context of a messiah giving them guidance. The shoe stops being a mistake caused by being in a hurry and is now The Sign.

Now that we know what “context” is, let us see how “out of context” is abused.

Remember this ad from the last presidential campaign that seems to have President Obama saying, “If we talk about the economy, we’re going to lose”?

It was the first Romney ad that came out for the general. But when we took at look at when and where that line was actually said, we see that Obama was actually referring to a quote from a John McCain staffer in the presidential election before that. He was trying to summarize the attitude of the McCain campaign at the time, which was suffering from its party identification with the president and Congress that helped put us in what we were just realizing would be one of the worst economic disasters in American history. In this case, context demonstrates that what is being implied is the exact opposite of what was said.

On the flip side of that, last June Rep. Trent Franks from Arizona commented that, “The incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” in order to justify having no rape exception in his 20 week national abortion ban. When he was hit from the left for the statement, he claimed he was “taken out of context.” In this case, that is nothing but a dodge, because nothing he said around that statement in any way changes that he was basically ignoring the 32,000 pregnancies that result from rape every year, nor would it make his statement any more relevant (i.e. even if only one woman got pregnant from rape, shouldn’t she not be forced to carry her rapist’s baby?).

It is in this second vein that I am taking claims about Dawkins being “taken out of context.” Maybe there is more to the article that I am missing, but so far it doesn’t look like anything that was said around those quotes changes that he appears to be speaking for his classmates regarding whether they were affected by their molestation, that he recognizes degrees of molestation, or that he thinks that you can’t judge people in earlier generations for their horrible behavior based on social expectations of the time. And taking in further context of previous statements he’s made, it’s directly in line with a demonstrable callous indifference to people who are not just like him or capable of serving his interests.

And that is what “out of context” means.

Why Do We Keep Listening to Dawkins?

Seriously. I know he has been incredibly important to the atheist movement, but let’s take a step back and ask if it’s worth listening to somebody who apparently thinks that we can’t judge pedophiles before a certain arbitrary date because they didn’t know any better.

In a recent interview with the Times of London, Dawkins described his own early schooling and pointed out that he was molested as a child by a master at his boarding school.

Professor Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, describes in a new autobiography how a master at his Salisbury prep school “pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”. He writes that the episode was “extremely disagreeable” and that other boys were molested by the same teacher, but concludes: “I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.”

He also describes this as “mild paedophilia” and says that you can’t judge people in the past by your own moral standard.

“Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

Ok, first of all, how the fuck would Richard Dawkins know if any of his schoolmates who were also molested by this creepy schoolmaster suffered “lasting damage?” As Greta Christina points out, he can speak for himself, not for them. Considering his demonstrable disdain for the the science of human behavior, he probably wouldn’t accept the opinions of people who say that molestation can and does inflict lasting damage on many, many children.

Secondly, in exactly what year did it become no longer ok to touch children’s genitals for sexual pleasure? I’m really kind of curious. PZ touched on this as well, but I would like to point out that one of the many arguments that atheists use to counter the “the New Testament got rid of all that Old Testament stuff” is that the Old Testament stuff was never moral to begin with. The premise of the argument is that a perfect god would never have ordered the wholesale slaughter of thousands of people, or the capture and rape of young girls, or the stoning of any number of people, including those who had the audacity to gather firewood on the Sabbath. A perfect god would have outlawed those things to begin with rather than wait a few thousand years and then correct that error. Just saying, “Well, things were different back then, cultural context, it was the only way to protect them, blah, blah, blahty, blah,” doesn’t actually make any of those things ever a good or moral thing to do. It’s an effective tactic because the person making the argument must either admit that god wrote those things, but is not perfectly moral, or that men wrote them in the cultural context in which they lived and as they grew more enlightened, they started to correct their self-serving, barbaric behavior by claiming that a perfect deity changed its mind.

So to hear Dawkins say that there was a time when child molestation was a-ok basically undermines the argument that immoral behavior remains immoral whether or not the pervading opinions of the time hold it to be so. In other words, I damn well do hold the racism of the 18th and 19th century against the people holding those opinions. I may recognize that they were not in possession of the wealth of thought that I have available to me to formulate the conclusion that race is a bullshit idea with no bearing on a person’s potential except inasmuch as they must deal with racism, but that doesn’t mean that I will blithely excuse their terrible opinions or wave them off as insignificant. It means that I will engage their racism as I do with any of their other arguments and demonstrate why its wrong, even if that person may be right about other things.

Knowing Dawkins, he will spend the next couple of days on Twitter trying to explain how everybody just doesn’t understand the nuances of what he was saying, then trying to describe those nuances in 140 characters or less, but I sincerely hope that maybe he surprises us and actually learns from this that there are no degrees of pedophilia, that you absolutely can and must judge the past by the new information we have today, and that he doesn’t get to tell us whether his schoolmates suffered because of what happened to them.

UPDATE: Dawkins has clarified his statements and apologized for his presumption about his classmates’ reactions or experiences. I am, frankly, surprised, and while there’s a lot in there that suggests that it’s our fault for not getting it, he seems contrite on the important points, and that seems reasonable.

Pull List of Justice: September 2013

pulllistofjusticeRegular readers of my stuff will know that I am a comic book fanatic and have argued many times that comics have historically been at the forefront of social progress, often addressing issues that television and other mediums have been unable or unwilling to. Yes, they can also be problematic, but I contend that finding the right book with the right author can lead to a wealth of fantastic characters representing all sorts of diverse types of people and ideas.

So welcome to the beginning of what will hopefully be a monthly feature in which I describe the wonderful things that are happening in the comics I read that send a positive message in the social justice arena. I should point out that I can only really write about the comics I actually read, so if you have a book that you think would be great that I don’t cover, mention it in the comments. Otherwise, all comics and characters are the property of their respective companies and are being reproduced in part here under Fair Use guidelines.

Now, let’s jump right in.

_____________

Thus begins my latest piece for Queereka. I hope that this will become a regular thing and get more people reading some of the amazing and socially progressive comics out there.

I’m Not Ready for Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis, left-wing evangelical preacher and person who runs the Sojourners organization (and associated magazine), was on Real Time with Bill Mahar and I have to say I was not impressed. I’ve never been impressed with Wallis, nor most left-wing evangelicals, and this is exactly why.

I should point out that I am not the biggest Mahar fan, either, for various reasons, but I think he brings up a really good point here which is that Wallis kept avoiding answering the questions. And that makes sense, since the questions don’t have very good answers. He doesn’t want to cop to the fact that he wants the Bible to say the things he likes and only the things he likes.

I would like people to take the Bible literally when it says “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Reza Aslan (the lit major and Ana Mardoll fan in me sees the irony there) points it out the problem really well when he says, “What you don’t like is figurative, what you do like is literal. The reason the Bible matters…is not because it’s true or false, it’s because it can mean whatever you want it to mean.”

And that’s where I get stuck. I get that Wallis agrees with me on most issues, though his desire to stay “neutral” about things until fairly recently is disturbing, but I have trouble with him because he’s still making an argument that makes no sense. He avoids discussing why we should take his interpretation of these stories literally and somebody else’s figuratively.

Now, I would argue that we don’t need  those stories and that his morality has informed his Biblical interpretation, not the other way around. If the Bible is to be taken seriously as a social justice text, it should be easy to read as such, and not require the backflipping that Wallis and those like him have to do in order to make this book say the things it damn well should say. Instead, we’re left with this interview full of distractions and subject changes because Wallis can’t give a good reason why I should pay attention when Jesus says to love one another, but ignore it when he says that you should never get divorced.

Honestly, the most coherent I’ve ever heard anyone be on the subject is Fred Clark, who has argued repeatedly that the Bible is a collection of stories around a certain theme. I still don’t agree that that means that there is any indication of a savior or a need to be saved at all, but his general idea is to take none of it literally and to be honest about his application of outside morality to how to reads the book, since it’s not a source of authority in and of itself.

I think if Wallis et. al. want to make a case for their interpretation of the Bible, they need to stop pretending that it’s obvious that Jesus agrees with them and start explaining this book the way Clark does: as a collection of ancient stories that, when taken together, lean toward suggesting a more just society. Like any other collection of stories, there are good parts and bad parts. There are times when even the ostensible “good guys” do horrible things. But the main theme is that through all of that, eventually love and justice overcome, which is not a bad theme for a story. And then, like a Tolkien novel, you read the appendices and you see that bad stuff still happens.

I admit, as an atheist and the certified owner of a literature degree, this is a bit self-serving. I would like to see fewer people treating the Bible as if it has any sort of authority in and of itself. I would like to see it treated like any other short story collection and be open to literary criticism (a post-colonial reading, for example, could be really fascinating considering how often Israel changes hands). That being said, trying to treat it any other way leads to what we see in this video with Wallis: red herrings, No True Scotsman fallacies, question begging, and abrupt subject changes. It’s all you really can do if you don’t want to just say, “I like these parts, so they’re true, and the parts I don’t like aren’t because of reasons.”

So I really would like to be on board with Wallis. I appreciate his alliance and, now that he’s finally come around on the LGBT thing, I appreciate his evolution. I wish there were more vocal evangelicals like him. But he needs to look at his arguments very closely, because he’s no Harry Jackson, Rick Scarborough, or Mike Huckabee, all of whom are used to blatantly lying about what they believe and shifting the conversation to avoid hard questions. Jim Wallis isn’t a good enough liar to be able to hold these positions and still sound coherent, so it’s time he looks for a way to communicate his message without sounding like he can’t even explain it.

Come See Me at FtBConscience!

FtBCon starts today and, while I am sad I will be missing Dave Silverman’s opening because I’ll running my bisexual support group tonight, I will be around for other sessions. You can see the full schedule at FtBCon.org or on Lanyrd.

More to the point, I will be speaking at a session!

Improving the Image of Atheists

by Kaoru Negisa, Stephanie Zvan, Chris Ho-Stuart, James Croft and Sarah Moglia

Atheists have an image problem. We didn’t create it, but we’re the ones with an interest in fixing it. Let’s talk about the range of strategies for doing that while still fighting our fights.

At 10:00am to 11:00am, Sunday 21st July (Central Standard Time)

That’s right, kids: I am waking up early on a Sunday, which I’m pretty sure nullifies part of the point of being an atheist, just so I can talk to you about how we can show the world that we only eat babies when Evolution tells us to. Seriously, I’ll be talking a lot about the appearance of atheists in pop culture, but hopefully also be listening to the rest of the panelists who, I assure you, are pretty much all smarter and better at this than me.

Other than me, there are a ton of fantastic panels that people will be on, including one on Atheists in Pop Culture (that I couldn’t get on because they already were over their awesome quotient on speakers), a fascinating looking panel on the harm of pseudoscience featuring the inestimable Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner and several other great speakers, a panel on myths and facts about trans* people, one about female protagonists in video games, and those are all just on Sunday after I speak.

So go to their website, follow the con on Twitter, follow along on Google +, look at the schedule on Lanyrd, and go listen to all of the very smart, very insightful people (and me), talk about things, interact with you in chatrooms and via Q&A segments, and generally hang out online with some of the owners of the internet.