About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Did you know the original was part of a sermon?

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.[^1] Ere long all America will tremble.

Theodore Parker was an abolitionist who published those words in 1853. His words were popular at the time, but we know them through Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted a paraphrase that had been attributed to Parker. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, of course, was also a minister.

It shouldn’t be any surprise then that the sentiment is ultimately a religious one. In fact, we should perhaps twig to this from the paraphrase, or even from the phrase “moral universe”. The idea that the universe has inherent moral qualities hasn’t been demonstrated. The impetus to view it that way is religious or at least is one of the impetuses to religion.

Yet I hear nonreligious people and skeptics use the phrase all the time. It’s used to energize activists and to comfort people in danger of burnout. Far more rare are statements or essays that question the idea even in its particulars. We even have a book with a title borrowed from the phrase arguing for the premise.

Yes, the book argues that nonreligious forces–science in particular1–are what bend the arc and that religion has the capability to reverse it. Yes, that book and many of the other uses of King’s quotation are referring to a metaphorical moral universe rather than the supernatural one of Parker’s original words. However, the directionality and inevitability of the quotation are generally accepted, if sometimes hedged.

If we don’t allow religion to dominate, our world will become more just. If we keep fighting, we will achieve more justice for more people.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true. Continue reading “About that “Arc of the Moral Universe””

About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

“But I Don’t Live in a Swing State”

I guess there’s no better morning to write this, is there?

When I write about elections, I almost invariably get U.S. voters telling me that, sure, they agree with what I have to say, but they don’t live in a swing state1. Why do they tell me this? They say this when they’re justifying to themselves and trying to justify to me voting for an outcome they don’t want.

  • Sure, our presidential election is between a highly effective politician with some bad decisions under her belt and an ignorant, impulsive fascist, but I don’t live in a swing state.
  • Sure, women, people of color, sexual minorities, immigrants, etc. are in deep trouble if this election goes the wrong way, but I don’t live in a swing state.
  • Sure, the ascendance of the far right wing in Europe is an international crisis we need to not contribute to, but I don’t live in a swing state.

You get the idea. Continue reading ““But I Don’t Live in a Swing State””

“But I Don’t Live in a Swing State”

Voting Green “on Principle”

This is an expanded version of an early-morning Facebook post from about a week ago. It got a lot of shares, some good positive comments, and some reasonable criticisms, so it seemed worth giving some extra, caffeinated time to.

When someone tells me they’re voting for Jill Stein on principle, I have to wonder what that principle is or how much people know about Stein and the Greens. I say that as someone with a history of voting Green under certain circumstances.

Photo of Jill Stein sitting behind a table in front of a beige wall, smiling.
“Jill Stein” by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

If you vote for Jill Stein, you’re voting for a candidate who has never held office above the suburban city level. She did that in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation, in a town that would be almost 100% white if it weren’t for students from Asia who settled locally after graduation. She has spent almost her entire political career as a lobbyist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is a far different set of skills from holding office and representing constituents.

If you vote for Jill Stein, you’re voting for the Green Party, which has chosen to throw its money and work into advertising itself through doomed runs for national and sometimes state offices over putting people in local offices where important, unglamorous work gets done. Continue reading “Voting Green “on Principle””

Voting Green “on Principle”

“You Need Us!” Yeah, About That

One of the common responses I’ve seen to the past few days of criticism of Sanders supporters and campaign workers over their behavior at the Nevada state convention, and of Sanders himself over his abysmal response, is “You need to be nicer to us Sanders supporters. You’re going to need us in November!”

Um, yeah, about that? If you’re one of those people, there are a few things you should be thinking about.

Hostages

There are the purely social aspects of trying to change people’s behavior with threats. When you tell me you’re willing to engage in behavior that will put Donald Trump in charge of the U.S. and hurt me and others as a result, I don’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy about you. Let me quote myself from months ago, because I’ve already told you this.

Those of you out there now saying you’re determined to let a Republican win if your choice for Democrat doesn’t get the nomination? You don’t even get to claim religious fervor. You’re just straight up holding hostages, and you’ve chosen the most vulnerable among us to throw between you and the gun.

Continue reading ““You Need Us!” Yeah, About That”

“You Need Us!” Yeah, About That

“Sanders Statement on Nevada”, Annotated

Senator Sanders was pressed to react to threats received by Nevada Democratic Party Chair Roberta Lange after this last weekend’s state convention. He issued a statement yesterday. As someone who’s been subject to harassment and threats for years over my political actions, I have some thoughts on that statement. Most of them aren’t good.

Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

It is imperative that the Democratic leadership, both nationally and in the states, understand that the political world is changing and that millions of Americans are outraged at establishment politics and establishment economics.

There are two major changes happening in the U.S. political world right now. The first is demographic, which Sanders’ campaign has long ignored to its peril. The other is, in fact, the rise of the unaffiliated voter. I’m a bit of a hipster in this regard, as I’ve never formally aligned myself with a party.

That doesn’t make me outraged at “establishment politics”, however. Operating outside of parties and pressuring them to change is not the same thing as declaring them invalid because they don’t represent my interests perfectly. Quite the contrary. Even when I’m frustrated by institutional inertia, I value the the organizing and the decades of relationships that make political parties the powerhouses that they are. This is particularly true when I’m asking them to help me, as Sanders has by seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

The people of this country want a government which represents all of us, not just the 1 percent, super PACs and wealthy campaign contributors.

This is campaign bafflegab. Continue reading ““Sanders Statement on Nevada”, Annotated”

“Sanders Statement on Nevada”, Annotated

On the Nevada Democratic Convention

I’ve seen Sanders supporters here and there demanding to know why Clinton supporters haven’t been talking about the mess that was the Nevada Democratic Convention over this past weekend. I can only answer for myself, though I’ve been a vocal Clinton supporter for several months. In my case, I’ve been quiet for three reasons:

  1. There hadn’t been much reporting done yet, just claims made.
  2. The history of claims of maltreatment from Sanders supporters don’t have a great history.
  3. Pointing out #2 when Sanders is already losing seems like a waste of energy.

Still, if Sanders supporters are going to insist on seeing a conspiracy of silence, I can speak up. Let’s start by talking about caucuses generally, because if you’re going to insist on saying one went wrong, you need to know what it looks like when one goes right.

Going back to basics, caucuses are one of the least-democratic ways a U.S. political party currently chooses its candidates. “Least-democratic” here means the fewest voters are directly represented in the outcome. Some smaller political parties are less democratic in that several states have no input into the national decision, but by and large, the days of backroom decision-making are done. The people who are allowed and able to participate in state contests choose the candidates to some degree. Caucuses are now the low bar.

Primaries, of course, are more democratic than caucuses. Open primaries, where people don’t have to be registered with the party whose candidate they’re choosing, are more democratic than closed primaries. However, they’re also open to being gamed by people who don’t support the party in whose primary they’re voting.

Proportional awarding of delegates to the national convention based on vote tallies is more more democratic than the winner-take-all system used by the Republicans, which turned Trump’s pluralities into a probable majority. Awarding delegates based on which candidate wins a smaller geographic region can also be less democratic than proportional representation, particularly if it follows gerrymandered borders.

All of that is a long way of saying that, if your concern is the will of the people and hearing the masses over party machinery, caucuses are the wrong places to be looking. (Though the assertion that party selection processes should reflect the will of the most people is an open question.) Caucuses are, by definition, about giving the people willing to put in the most effort far more say than anyone else. That makes them less accessible to people with physical limitations, people who don’t speak English well, people who work off hours, and people who can’t afford childcare.

So if you’ve been sharing things that tell me how super important it is that your candidate does well in caucus states, I’m already not terribly sympathetic to arguments that he was robbed and the will of the voters has been undone by machinations. This is particularly true when you’ve also been sharing things telling me how super great it is that your team used this not-very-democratic process to overturn the will of the people who were able to vote in the caucus and gain a disproportionate number of delegates to the state convention. (This is particularly true when the information is misleading to boot, but more on that later.) Inconsistencies like this, on top of all that nonsense about red states–which just happened to be the states with high proportions of non-white voters–only make me think you’re conflating democracy with getting what you, personally, want. Continue reading “On the Nevada Democratic Convention”

On the Nevada Democratic Convention

Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump

Today, Jonathan Chait uses his column over at New York Magazine to do what all the cool kids are doing, tell us how Trump ended up the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Spoiler: It’s our lack of eugenics programs.

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts a future in which Americans have grown progressively dumber, and eventually elect as president of the United States a professional wrestler, who caters demagogically to their nationalistic impulses and ignorance of science. Only because the film took place in an imaginary world was it possible to straightforwardly equate a political choice with a lack of intelligence. In the actual world, the bounds of taste and deference to (small-d) democratic outcomes make it gauche to do so. But the dynamic imagined in Idiocracy has obviously transpired, down to the election of a figure from pro wrestling: [There is video at the link, if you want some wrestling theater.]

While it’s impolite and politically counterproductive, if we want to accurately identify the analytic error that caused so many of us to dismiss Trump, we must return to the idiocy question. The particular idiocy involves both the party’s elites and its voters. The failures of the elites have been the source of analysis for months now. Republican insiders and donors failed to grasp the severity of the threat Trump posed to their party, many of them rallied behind obviously doomed legacy candidate Jeb Bush, or they used ineffectual messages when they did attack Trump. Or, most of all, they simply deluded themselves about the dangers he posed rather than face up to them. I never believed party insiders could fully dictate the outcome of the nomination, but I did expect them to be able to block a wildly unacceptable candidate, and they proved surprisingly inept even in the face of extreme peril to their collective self-interest.

Then there are the voters, whose behavior provided the largest surprise. It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon. Everything about Trump is a joke.

I’m not going to delve deeply into the Idiocracy reference, but yes, really, eugenics. Plus a denial of the demographic facts. And a nifty little dose of ableism like a cherry on top.

I don’t want to get too far into Chait’s poor argumentation either, but I can’t quite let that paragraph about Republican Party elites pass without comment. Why are these elites “idiots”? Because they didn’t do what Chait expected them to be able to do. They were inept because what they did didn’t work. It can’t be that the problem was harder to deal with than Chait’s eyeballing it suggested. He stopped Trump, so clearly they must have been able to.

Oh, wait. He didn’t. He’s just calling people “idiots” and saying Trump is unserious at thesaurus-supported length, which will clearly solve the problem immediately. It’s a good thing someone finally thought to try it.

Oddly enough, nowhere among all the people Chait blames for Trump’s rise is Chait himself. Continue reading “Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump”

Jonathan Chait, “PC”, and Liberal Responsibility for Trump

The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Multiculturalism is a problem, we’re told. Recognizing other cultures as being as valid as our own keeps bad, oppressive ideas alive and empowered. Endorsing multiculturalism is what leads to feminists in Muslim countries being branded “native informants” instead of interested parties in their own societies.

It also situates Ms. Eltahawy’s work within a growing trend of “native informants” whose personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

If we believe in multiculturalism, we’re told, Mona Eltahawy’s protests against harassment, assault, and exclusion aren’t real because they can be used to serve American goals. They aren’t valid because her statements on the her interests and the interests of other women like her don’t reflect the positions of every woman enmeshed in Egyptian Islamism.

Embracing multiculturalism is what leads feminists and LGBT activists to support Islamist men in shutting down a talk by an ex-Muslim woman speaking about the costs of Islamism borne by women.

Goldsmiths Feminist Society stands in solidarity with Goldsmiths Islamic Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and agree that hosting known islamophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.

If we embrace multiculturalism, we’re told, we must always side with the people in power in any society. We can’t question their motives, their means, or their effects on others. We must respect them as they are, or we are simply foisting our own views on another culture.

So we’re told. Of course, we’re told a lot of things. It’s good to take a step back every once in a while and question whether they’re true. In this case, they aren’t. Continue reading “The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism”

The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism

“Secular Lobby Day”, Monette Richards on Atheists Talk

One of the goals of the atheist movement is to have our voices represented and heard in the halls of power. Until we’re elected in any great number, one of the best ways to do this remains lobbying our elected representatives. Before we can do that, however, we need to know how to lobby.

For the past four years, Monette Richards of the Center for Inquiry–Northeast Ohio and Secular Woman has organized a Secular Summit in Ohio. The Secular Summit combines training in lobbying with hands-on practice in talking to politicians. That includes talking to politicians who disagree with you. Monette joins us this Sunday to talk about what goes into lobbying and what we get out of lobbying together as atheists.

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“Secular Lobby Day”, Monette Richards on Atheists Talk

Bernie Sanders and Revolution Betrayed

The revolution will not be organized, and it turns out I’m a bit angry about that.

This post is about why I’m voting against Bernie Sanders for Democratic nominee. I’m afraid that to be taken seriously doing that these days, particularly as a woman, requires a political autobiography. Credentials required lest someone think I am merely voting genitalia.* So here they are.

The first presidential election I recall having any feelings about, much less strong feelings, was the Carter-Reagan-Anderson race of 1980. I was for Anderson, mostly because I found the Carter administration weak and too easily mired in scandal. I was wrong, because I didn’t understand how major third-party candidates worked against the candidates they were closest to politically in our system, and because I didn’t understand how the press manufactures the image of an administration, but it didn’t much matter. I couldn’t vote. I was barely ten when the election happened.

I grew up political. I also grew up Gen X, particularly that little slice of Gen X who knew that nothing we did was going to matter because Reagan was going to get us all killed with his macho, anti-communist, bullshit posturing before we got to see any significant slice of adulthood. It turns out we were wrong about that too, though not because of Reagan. An awful lot of people worked to keep us all from dying.

It took a long time to grow out of this idea that nothing we did mattered. Continue reading “Bernie Sanders and Revolution Betrayed”

Bernie Sanders and Revolution Betrayed