Humanist Symposium #8: Interlocking Ruba’iyat

Humanist Symposium #8 is up! This may be my favorite blog carnival of all: it’s the carnival dedicated to discussing and celebrating atheism as a positive, fulfilling worldview, and to defending the philosophy of humanism. The hosts were kind enough to include my pieces Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy? and Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism, so many thanks for that. And Elliptica has done a wonderful job with this carnival, casting it in a Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam theme.

It’s going to be a tough act to follow — which sucks for me, since I’m the one who has to follow it, as I’m hosting the next installment. If you’re a humanist/ atheist/ etc. blogger and want to submit one of your posts to the next Humanist Symposium, please check out the guidelines and use the submission form. Ta!

Humanist Symposium #8: Interlocking Ruba’iyat

Friday Cat Blogging: Kitten Feeding Time Mosh Pit

My cousin’s wedding last week was held in a barn, and there was a mother cat living there with four kittens at maximum cuteness age — about six weeks, young enough to be tiny and fluffy still, but old enough to be playing and gamboling about. We took a million pictures, but this is my favorite: Kitten Feeding Time Mosh Pit.


I love the kitten on top, the one lying on the other kittens’ heads. He’s all like, “Yeah, I’m sitting on your head. What’s your point?”

And the hay bale is the perfect touch.

For the total experience, click to enlarge.

Friday Cat Blogging: Kitten Feeding Time Mosh Pit

Male Dom Female Sub: The Blowfish Blog

Note: This post, and the post it links to, has a fair amount of sexual content: not about my personal sex life per se, but about my personal fantasy life and my tastes in porn. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that: Now would be a good time to disembark.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog, about a sea-change that’s been happening in the world of SM porn. It’s called Male Dom Female Sub, and it begins thus:

Has anyone else noticed a drastic shift in kinky porn in the last few years?

It used to be that the most common trope in kinky porn was the dominant woman. Madame Cruella, Mistress of Pain, Kitten with a Whip — these were the themes and images that dominated, if you will, the world of SM porn, both in writing and in visual art. It was a cliche, even: everyone knew the cliche of the powerful business executive who paid to get beaten and humiliated once a week — or who built a library of fem-dom porn to help him fantasize about it.

But in the last few years, I’ve been seeing a definite shift. In the kinky porn that comes across my path (and a fair amount of kinky porn comes across my path), I’m seeing less and less porn starring dominant women, and more and more starring submissive women and dominant men.

I’ll admit that I haven’t studied this trend with any scientific rigor: this observation is very much anecdotal, and I could be talking out of my ass. But I really don’t think so. I was actually so used to the prevalence of dominant women in SM porn that it took me a while to realize that they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be.

And now I’m wondering: What’s that about?

To find out what I think that’s about, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Male Dom Female Sub: The Blowfish Blog

Carnivals: Feminists and Liberals

Carnival of Feminists #45 is up at Feminist Philosophers.

And this slipped through the cracks while I was on vacation: Carnival of the Liberals #47 is up at Plural Politics. I didn’t get in the Big Ten this time, but they were kind enough to include my piece Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy? as an Honorable Mention.

If you’re a feminist blogger and want to get in on the Carnival of Feminists, here’s their submission form. If you’re a liberal blogger who wants to submit a post to the Carnival of the Liberals, here’s the submission form for them. Happy blogging!

Carnivals: Feminists and Liberals

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

This piece is about the current atheist movement – but I think it applies to almost any movement for social change.

There’s a lively debate in the godless movement about how we should be going about the business of atheist, agnostic, skeptical, humanist, and other godless activism. Some, like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, favor a more passionate, confrontational approach, speaking directly and without mincing words about the absurdities and contradictions and troubling manifestations of religion and religious institutions. Others, like Michael Shermer, prefer a more respectful, more sympathetic, less confrontational approach towards religion and religious beliefs.

Here’s what I want to know:

Why is this an either/or question?

Let me give you an analogy. In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, pretty much this exact same question was a subject of hot debate. Loud, angry, in-your-face street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation accused the more mild-mannered lobbying and electoral-politics groups like the Human Rights Campaign Fund of assimilationism, excessive compromise, and generally selling out. And the mild-mannered lobbying groups accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder. (Obviously, this kind of division isn’t limited to the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s — Malcolm X and Martin Luther King leap to mind, as do Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The queer movement is just the one I was around for.)

But in retrospect, it seems clear that both methods were effective. Still are, for that matter. Far more effective than either method alone.

Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice that wants to find a workable compromise for everybody. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice that demands to be heard and honored. So when both kinds of voices are heard (or rather, all kinds of voices, since this difference is much more of a spectrum than a simple either/or dichotomy), then more people will be reached.

But the effectiveness of the two-pronged, “good cop/bad cop” strategy goes far beyond a simple numbers game. The two methods together combine to make a symbiotic whole that’s far more effective than the sum of its parts.

Again, let’s look at the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s. The street activists got attention, got on the news, raised visibility and awareness of the issues. The lobbyists and other negotiator-types could then go to the politicians and corporations and institutions and raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the politicians etc. they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of the questions at hand. (One of the things you notice when you look at ACT UP’s early years is that, when they took on an issue — speeding up the approval process for drugs, getting treatment for women with HIV, etc. — that issue would commonly be on the agenda of the medical and political establishment within six months to a year.)

In addition, the street activists presented a more extreme, hard-line set of demands… which made the lobbyists and other negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line for what constituted an extremist position versus a moderate one kept getting moved, and lobbyists could go further and ask for more while still seeming moderate. (We see this dynamic now, alas, being used very effectively today by the far right. And we see it more happily with the way that supporting civil unions instead of same-sex marriage has become the moderate political position — something that was not even close to being true ten years ago.)

And, of course, you had the very straightforward “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. The nice polite compromisers could get a lot more accomplished with the political/ medical/ corporate establishment when they knew the street activists were there to create unholy hell if they didn’t get what they were asking for. The “I don’t know if I can keep my partner in line much longer” gambit works just as well for an activist movement working over a pharmaceutical company as it does for a cop working over a suspect.

But perhaps most importantly:

We do what we’re called to do.

Or, if you don’t like the religious implications of that phrase: We do what we’re inspired to do. We do what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; while some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents, and at compromise. (And some of us are good at balancing these approaches, or at using different ones at different times.)

And since the multi-pronged approach to activism is so much more effective than any one prong alone, it seems patently absurd to insist that everyone else in the movement should be working the exact same prong that we’re working.

I’m not saying we should all just hold hands in a circle and sing “Kumbaya.” There are real differences within the atheist/ non-believer community, differences not only about our methods but about our actual agendas. What’s more, the difference between compromise and confrontation isn’t merely one of tactics — it often has serious practical implications, having to do with what is and is not an acceptable compromise. And those differences are worth arguing about.

But when it comes to the basic question of “sympathetic compromiser versus passionate idealist” tactics, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped spending our time and energy squabbling with each other, and left each other the hell alone to do what we’re good at and what we’re inspired to do.

P.S. I’m home at last. The trip was great, but exhausting. Pictures are coming. I have a couple of deadlines to attend to in the next day or two, but I should be back to my regular blogging schedule after that.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

Defending Disruption

I’m still on the road, and am too tired to write anything new, so here’s something from the archives that I think will be new to most of you. I wrote this in 2003, at the beginning of the second Persian Gulf War, when anti-war protests seriously disrupted traffic and business in San Francisco for about a week. It never got published, but I like it and think it’s important, so I’m publishing it here.

Defending Disruption

I’ve had some disturbing conversations with friends lately. These are people I respect, people who are solidly progressive/liberal. They’re vehemently against the war — and yet they’re also vehemently against the recent anti-war protests that blocked traffic in downtown San Francisco. They argue that the protests disrupted life for everyone, disrupted the lives of people who aren’t responsible for the war and many of whom oppose it. They argue that the protests endangered lives by blocking traffic for emergency vehicles. They argue that a disruptive annoyance isn’t a good way to convince anyone of your position. Here’s what I want to say to my friends — and to any progressives/liberals who share their irritation and anger.

I want you to think about resistance movements of the past. Think about the railroad strikes in the early days of the labor movement. The Vietnam protests. Gandhi and the Indian resistance to British occupation. The early days of ACT-UP. Heck, the American Revolution. Pick the ones you’re fondest of. And think about how disruptive these movements were to the lives of everyday people, people who had little or nothing to do with the injustices being protested. Think about the traffic that was blocked by, say, Dr. King’s March on Washington: think about all the people who agreed with the marchers and yet couldn’t get to work because of them.

Yet when progressives/liberals talk about these movements now, they don’t complain about what a stressful, annoying inconvenience they must have been. They speak about these movements warmly, with respect and admiration for the protesters’ bravery in taking unpopular stands and putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line for them. Why are the anti-war protests different?

If you want a more recent example, think about the UPS strike of a few years back. Damn, was that annoying. It was a much bigger inconvenience than the recent street-blocking anti-war protests, and it inconvenienced a lot more people, and it went on for longer. But every progressive/liberal I knew was solidly in support of the drivers, and more than willing to accept the inconveniences caused by the strike. And while I don’t mean to trivialize the UPS drivers’ cause, the injustices they were protesting were nowhere near on the same scale as the injustices of the current war.

Why are the anti-war protests different?

Lots of things disrupt traffic. Giants games, Chinese New Year, Pink Saturday, the Bay to Breakers marathon. All of these make it hard to get around the city, for regular folks as well as emergency vehicles. And I’ve never heard the kind of vehement anger against these events that I’ve heard about the anti-war protests.

Why are the anti-war protests different?

Some argue that to annoy people who are just trying to get to work is a counter-effective form of persuasion. This may be true in the short run, but it isn’t necessarily true over time. Remember, it took years for the Vietnam protests to shift public opinion.

But more to the point, changing the minds of your opponents (or the undecided) isn’t the only reason for disruptive resistance, and it may not even be the most important one. There are others. Letting the government know that they’re acting against your wishes. Telling others who support your cause that they’re not alone, locally and around the world. Putting pressure on the people you’re fighting and making it impossible for them to ignore you. Refusing your consent. Making your voice heard.

I understand that you’re stressed out right now. I get that you’re upset and angry and freaked out by the war, and I get that the traffic blockades have added to your stress. But resistance movements have to be disruptive. They don’t work otherwise. I have nothing against quiet candlelight vigils, but they don’t get the same level of attention, and they don’t create the same level of pressure. (I was very amused by TV reporters who wondered aloud why the protesters felt they had to block traffic — at the exact moment they were giving the protests extensive air time).

Effective resistance has to get in the way. That’s what it does. That’s how it works. And twenty or fifty years from now, the stress and inconvenience will be forgotten, and the resistance will be remembered and honored. I’m asking you to look at this anti-war movement the way you look at resistance movements of the past, and to honor it here and now.

Defending Disruption

Carnival of the Godless #75

Carnival of the Godless #75 is up at Ain’t Christian. (My carnival contributions this time around: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions, and The Argument From Design — Now With 40% More Cosmology! Or, Why David Hume Rocks.) I’m still running around like crazy with my family in the Midwest and haven’t had a chance to read the Carnival, but it’s always excellent, and I’m sure this one is no exception.

If you’re a godless blogger and you want to submit a blog post to the next Carnival of the Godless — or if you’ve read a good godless blog post by someone else that you want to nominate for the Carnival — you can get the submission guidelines and the submission form here.

Carnival of the Godless #75

Skeptic’s Circle #69

Skeptic’s Circle #69 is up in two different formats: an entertaining Old West narrative for those who are entertained by such things, and a Plain Jane “here are a bunch of links” format for those who are either less whimsical or less patient. Thanks to Unscrewing the Inscrutable for hosting, and for including my pieces Literally and Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions.

If you’re a skeptical blogger and want to participate in the Skeptic’s Circle, you can find their archives, schedule, and guidelines for submissions here.

FYI, I’m still on the road and will be for a few more days, but I hope to do at least one more bit of actual blogging before I return. Thanks for your patience. Photos of the Berwyn Spindle and some very cute kittens are forthcoming on our return.

Skeptic’s Circle #69

Seeing Jesus On Drugs

Please bear with me here. I’m (a) a little travel-worn, and (b) doing something I swore I would never do, which is blogging drunk (we just had an amazing dinner with my brother and my aunt and uncle, and both wine and after-dinner drinks were involved.) So if I’m not my usual articulate self, please forgive me.

I was telling this story to Ingrid and my brother Rick in the car today, and thought y’all might appreciate it. Back when I was in college, I was tripping on LSD this one time, looking at the stars and becoming fascinated with the pink and purple neon patterns that the stars were forming in the night sky. This pattern-formation thing had happened on many previous acid trips — ordinary objects would alter and breathe and shift around, patterns would begin to form in the shifting visual field, the patterns would seem achingly familiar but not quite recognizable, and they would suddenly coalesce into an immediately recognizable image.

I was always curious as to what these images would be, and would sometimes take them a bit too seriously. But after three or four years of fairly regular drug trips, I’d also learned to take these images with a grain of salt. Especially since the first time it happened, the not-quite-legible writing in the street — the writing in the beautiful flowing Victorian script that clearly had an important message for me if only I could read it — suddenly coalesced into the words “Pepsi-Cola.”

So anyway. This one time, I was tripping on acid and watching the pink and purple neon patterns forming in the night sky — and they suddenly coalesced into an enormous image of Jesus.

Immediately recognizable. Long hair, beard, white robes (okay, pink and purple neon robes, but whatever), hands outstretched in a gesture of blessing, everything. Apart from it being sketched in the night sky in pink and purple neon (somewhat tacky early-80s pink and purple neon, as I recall), it could have been on the wall of a Sunday school.

Now, if this had been my first or second acid trip, I might have been fairly shaken by this. I might have even thought I was having a religious experience and seeing Jesus. But because this was roughly my 30th or 40th acid trip, my reaction wasn’t, “I took acid and saw Jesus!” Not even for a second. My reaction was, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m having a hallucination of Jesus. This must be what happens when people take acid and see Jesus. Huh.” I sat there for what seemed like an hour but may in fact have been five minutes, enjoying the pink and purple neon Jesus dominating the night sky, and pondering why exactly I was having a hallucination about Jesus.

I’m not sure what the point of this story is. I think it has something to do with the Michael Shermer book I’m reading now (“How We Believe”) and the bit about the magnetic helmet that induces religious experiences in people who wear it by stimulating the temporal lobes. But it’s late and I’m travel-worn and a bit tipsy, so I’m cutting myself some slack and not fretting about coming up with a brilliantly insightful conclusion on this one. Mostly, I just think it’s a funny story. Brilliantly insightful conclusions are left as an exercise for the reader.

P.S. Apropos of nothing: Thanks to everybody who posted their links on the Shameless Self-Promotion post. I haven’t yet had a chance to look at all the links (I just got Interweb access tonight after a three-day absence, and the shakes and cold sweats are only now beginning to subside). But the quick glance I gave them makes it clear — the experiment is definitely a success, and I’ll have to do this again.

BTW, I may not be back on the blog again for a couple of days, as my cousin’s wedding festivities will be taking over my life for a day or two. But hopefully I’ll be able to post at least a quick something before I come home. See y’all soon!

Seeing Jesus On Drugs