Free Speech for Evil, Hateful, Repulsive Nutjobs? You Betcha!

Never, in the worst of my worst nightmares, did I think I would ever have to write anything at all defending Fred Phelps.

But it looks like I do.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Quick precis, for those who don’t know the story: You know Fred Phelps? The evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob who pickets the funerals of prominent gay people, with signs saying things like “God Hates Fags”? Who lately has been picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war, on the grounds that their deaths are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality? (I told you — evil, hateful, repulsive nutjob.)

He — or more accurately, his church — was recently ordered to pay nearly $11 million in damages, in a civil suit filed by the father of a soldier whose funeral Phelps picketed. The suit was won on the grounds that the picket constituted “invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress.”

And I’m finding myself very disturbed by this.

Don’t get me wrong. I am feeling a certain amount of visceral Schadenfreude about the decision. I won’t deny that. As Molly Ivins once said, “Mama may have raised a mean child, but she didn’t raise no hypocrites.” But as much as I personally enjoy seeing the bastard suffer, I am far more disturbed by the extremely chilling effect that this decision could have for freedom of political speech and expression.

For all of us.

And that’s a whole lot more important to me than my personal Schadenfreude.

According to the reports I’ve read, this was not an Operation Rescue type of deal. There was no disruption of the service, no getting three inches from the mourners’ faces to scream at them. The plaintiff himself said at the trial that he didn’t even see the protesters or their signs at the funeral. They kept their hateful, repugnant protest a reasonable distance away. So the invasion of privacy thing seems to be pretty much bullshit. It’s the “intent to inflict emotional distress” that’s the real core here.

And when it comes to political and religious speech, I think the infliction of emotional distress is — and should be — a guaranteed, First Amendment-protected right.

Take a look at my Atheists and Anger piece. And take a look at the deluge of comments. 749 comments as of this writing, and still climbing. Almost half from people who were very emotionally distressed indeed by the piece. I knew when I wrote it that the piece would inflict emotional distress on a lot of people (although I didn’t quite expect the deluge)… and I wrote it anyway.

I want to be able to write like that again without being sued.

Not a perfect example, I’ll admit. People come to my blog voluntarily (although some of them seem to have forgotten that fact), so it could be argued that I didn’t inflict anything.

So let’s use a different example. I want the right to picket church services with a sign saying, “How’s Your Invisible Friend Today?” To picket the opening of a new steak restaurant with signs that vividly describe slaughterhouse conditions. To picket George W. Bush’s eventual funeral singing, “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead.” I probably wouldn’t do any of those things, since I’d consider them in bad taste; but I think I should have the right to do them.

And if this ruling stands, I might not.

Free speech is a human right, one of the central foundations that this country was built on. And that’s not just true when the speech in question goes the way we want it. The First Amendment does not exist to protect popular speech. It exists to protect unpopular speech. That’s the whole point. We don’t need Constitutional protection for our right to publish apple pie recipes or pictures of cute puppies. We need Constitutional protection for our right to say things that make people flee in horror… from “God Hates Fags” to “Gay Is Beautiful,” from “Stop the War” to “Bomb Them Into The Stone Age,” from “God Wants Our Soldiers To Die” to “God Does Not Exist.”

And the more I think about this case, the more I think it’s bad strategically as well as ethically. And for much the same reason. I think this case can and will be used by the Right to argue that queers are demanding “special rights.” “Sure, they want First Amendment protections for themselves,” they’ll say. “But they sure are quick to get off their First Amendment high horse when it’s someone they don’t like!”

And they’ll be right to do so.

I mean, I think that. I’m saying that right now. And I’m queer.

If you want to make an argument that this ruling doesn’t violate the First Amendment, then I’d be very open to hearing it. I’m the first to admit that I’m not a legal or Constitutional scholar, and it’s possible that a reasonable case could be made that the Phelps protests are not protected speech under the First Amendment.

But I’ve seen too many arguments on this topic that say, “Free speech isn’t an absolute right, there are limits, look at libel laws, fraud laws, etc.”… without making any argument for why this particular case should be one of those limitations. Other than just, “The speech is hateful.” So far, nothing I have read on this particular case suggests any interpretation other than, “the plaintiffs are getting $11 million because they were upset by the content of Phelps’s speech.”

Deeply upset, and rightfully so. I get that. But again, that is exactly the sort of situation that the First Amendment is meant to protect.

And I’ve seen too many arguments on this case that essentially say, “First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment — I wanna see this bastard go down.” I would respectfully like to suggest that that is one lousy argument. The First Amendment is not to be casually tossed aside when it happens to protect a repulsive creep who we want to see fry.

A lot of progressives, people who are normally all over the First Amendment/free speech thing, are unusually willing, even eager, to drop their love of the Amendment in this particular case. And I understand the impulse. This particular case — this particular person, this particular group — makes people profoundly angry and upset. It makes me profoundly angry and upset. There’s a part of me that would love for some Constitutional scholar to come up with some legal loophole in the First Amendment, just so I can feel good about watching this bastard go down in flames.

But once again — that’s the whole point. The First Amendment to protect speech that makes people profoundly angry and upset.

See, this case is not just about a delicate legal nitpick. It’s not just about practical political strategy. It’s not even just about the pragmatic, enlightened self-interest desire to protect other people’s First Amendment rights so our own will be protected. This case is about the basic ethical principle of free speech. And it’s about whether we care enough about that principle to defend it, even when it hurts. It’s about whether people have the legal right to say what they want, no matter how vile or upsetting we find it… simply because they do.

So do we really have to defend this guy? Do we really have to stand up and say, “Yes, Fred Phelps has the right to go to funerals and carry signs saying ‘God hates fags’ and “Thank God for dead soldiers’?”

Yes. We do.

We have to stand up and defend anyone who’s trying to communicate an unpopular message that profoundly upsets people. That includes a lot of horrible, evil people with repulsive ideas. But that’s the whole point of the First Amendment. It doesn’t exist to protect popular speech. It doesn’t exist to protect Cute Overload. It exists to protect speech that makes us want to vomit.


Free Speech for Evil, Hateful, Repulsive Nutjobs? You Betcha!

Blog Carnivals: Liberals, Feminists, and Skeptics

Carnival time! Carnival of the Liberals #50 is up at That Is So Queer. Faith has done a lovely Edgar Allen Poe theme for this Carnival. And I’m extra excited this time: Carnival of the Liberals is a selective carnival, they only pick the ten best submissions for each roundup… and this time I have not one but two pieces in it! Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance, and Atheists and Anger! They like me, they really like me! My favorite other piece in this carnival: I Write Letters by Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare’s Sister, on how slamming Ann Coulter for her looks makes you no better than she is.

Carnival of Feminists #46 is up at Cubically Challenged. My piece this time: Male Dom Female Sub, from the Blowfish Blog. My favorite other piece in this carnival: In Search of My Rhetorical Penis by Grrlscientist at Living the Scientific Life (a blog I clearly need to check out more), on why female science bloggers get overlooked.

And Skeptic’s Circle #72 is up at Quackometer. I’m not in the circle this time around, but it’s a good blog carnival nonetheless. My favorite piece: Holford Watch, on why newspapers only print “miracle cure” stories and not “negative findings.”

If you’re a liberal, feminist, or skeptic blogger and want to be in an upcoming Carnival, here are submission guidelines and info for the Carnival of the Liberals, Carnival of Feminists, and Skeptic’s Circle. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

Blog Carnivals: Liberals, Feminists, and Skeptics

Dumbledore Is Gay: Good Guys and Literary Closets

Every single person I have ever met in my life has sent me this piece of news.

I wonder why. 🙂

The news: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books (yes, I’m a fan, suck it up), announced recently that the headmaster character, Dumbledore, is gay. It came up at a recent reading at Carnegie Hall; a fan asked about Dumbledore’s love life, and Rowling answered, “My truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” She went on to explain that Dumbledore had been in love with the wizard Grindelwald in his youth, and that Grindelwald turning out to be evil was the great tragedy of Dumbledore’s life.

(As it turns out, the subject of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation had come up previously during the making of one of the movies; the director had some reference in the script to a girl in Dumbledore’s past, and Rowling had to pass him a note to gently point him off that track.)

I pretty much have just three things to say about this:

One: Neat.

I think it’s cool that Dumbledore is the moral center of the book, the apotheosis of goodness, the one character that all the good guys look to for both political and ethical leadership.

And he’s gay.

That’s just nifty.

Two: I think it’s too bad she couldn’t have said so in the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally understand why she didn’t. If she’d made Dumbledore overtly gay in the books, then in the general public eye, that’s what the books would have been about. Everything else that the books are about — moral complexity, the realities of a resistance movement, what it’s like to be a child growing up and figuring out that the adult world is seriously messed-up, all the lovely and ridiculous magic stuff — would have become suddenly and dramatically secondary. It would have become the children’s book series about the wizarding school with the gay headmaster. It would have become the seven-volume fantasy version of “Heather Has Two Mommies.” I think it was the right decision, and if I’d been Rowling, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I just think that’s too bad.

I think it’s too bad that we live in a world where the mere presence of a major gay character in a children’s book automatically makes it a Kids’ Book About Gay.

I think it’s too bad that I now have to wonder: How many other characters did Rowling envision as gay, but wasn’t able to say so? (My money’s on Draco…)

I think it’s too bad that the single most popular author in the known universe, the one author who could write her own ticket more than any author living today, still had to keep the gayness of one of her central characters a secret until the series was completed.

It is better now than it used to be, forty years ago or even twenty. Imagine if L. Frank Baum had announced that Glinda the Good Witch was gay. Or Tolkein with Gandalf. Or Madeleine L’Engle with Mrs. Whatsit. There would have been a shitstorm. But it’s a different time now, and the people who are mostly going to be upset about Dumbledore are the fundies who aren’t buying the books anyway because they promote witchcraft.

But I still think we have a long way to go. I still think it’s still too bad that a major children’s book can’t have a major gay character in it without that becoming the central defining feature of the book.

Maybe in twenty years.

Three: Now I have to read the whole series again. Or the last book, anyway.

Damn. What a shame.

Oh, and P.S.: Snape.

No, I’m not saying he’s gay. I’m just saying: Snape. Because I am constitutionally incapable of writing an entire Harry Potter post without mentioning Snape.

Dumbledore Is Gay: Good Guys and Literary Closets

Atheists and Anger

I want to talk about atheists and anger.

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I’m not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I’m going to fucking well let myself be angry.

But I think it’s important. One of the most common criticisms lobbed at the newly-vocal atheist community is, “Why do you have to be so angry?” So I want to talk about:

1. Why atheists are angry;

2. Why our anger is valid, valuable, and necessary;

And 3. Why it’s completely fucked-up to try to take our anger away from us.

So let’s start with why we’re angry. Or rather — because this is my blog and I don’t presume to speak for all atheists — why I’m angry.


I’m angry that according to a recent Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for President.

I’m angry that atheist conventions have to have extra security, including hand-held metal detectors and bag searches, because of fatwas and death threats.

I’m angry that atheist soldiers — in the U.S. armed forces — have had prayer ceremonies pressured on them and atheist meetings broken up by Christian superior officers, in direct violation of the First Amendment. I’m angry that evangelical Christian groups are being given exclusive access to proselytize on military bases — again in the U.S. armed forces, again in direct violation of the First Amendment. I’m angry that atheist soldiers who are complaining about this are being harassed and are even getting death threats from Christian soldiers and superior officers — yet again, in the U.S. armed forces. And I’m angry that Christians still say smug, sanctimonious things like, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” You know why you’re not seeing atheists in foxholes? Because believers are threatening to shoot them if they come out.

I’m angry that the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, said of atheists, in my lifetime, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.” My President. No, I didn’t vote for him, but he was still my President, and he still said that my lack of religious belief meant that I shouldn’t be regarded as a citizen.

I’m angry that it took until 1961 for atheists to be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, testify in court, or hold public office in every state in the country.

I’m angry that almost half of Americans believe in creationism. And not a broad, “God had a hand in evolution” creationism, but a strict, young-earth, “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” creationism.

And on that topic: I’m angry that school boards all across this country are still — 82 years after the Scopes trial — having to spend time and money and resources on the fight to have evolution taught in the schools. School boards are not exactly loaded with time and money and resources, and any of the time/ money/ resources that they’re spending fighting this stupid fight is time/ money/ resources that they’re not spending, you know, teaching.

I’m angry that women are dying of AIDS in Africa and South America because the Catholic Church has convinced them that using condoms makes baby Jesus cry.

I’m angry that women are having septic abortions — or are being forced to have unwanted children who they resent and mistreat — because religious organizations have gotten laws passed making abortion illegal or inaccessible.

I’m angry about what happened to Galileo. Still. And I’m angry that it took the Catholic Church until 1992 to apologize for it.

I get angry when advice columnists tell their troubled letter-writers to talk to their priest or minister or rabbi… when there is absolutely no legal requirement that a religious leader have any sort of training in counseling or therapy.

And I get angry when religious leaders offer counseling and advice to troubled people — sex advice, relationship advice, advice on depression and stress, etc. — not based on any evidence about what actually does and does not work in people’s brains and lives, but on the basis of what their religious doctrine tells them God wants for us.

I’m angry at preachers who tell women in their flock to submit to their husbands because it’s the will of God, even when their husbands are beating them within an inch of their lives.

I’m angry that so many believers treat prayer as a sort of cosmic shopping list for God. I’m angry that believers pray to win sporting events, poker hands, beauty pageants, and more. As if they were the center of the universe, as if God gives a shit about who wins the NCAA Final Four — and as if the other teams/ players/ contestants weren’t praying just as hard.

I’m especially angry that so many believers treat prayer as a cosmic shopping list when it comes to health and illness. I’m angry that this belief leads to the revolting conclusion that God deliberately makes people sick so they’ll pray to him to get better. And I’m angry that they foist this belief on sick and dying children — in essence teaching them that, if they don’t get better, it’s their fault. That they didn’t pray hard enough, or they didn’t pray right, or God just doesn’t love them enough.

And I get angry when other believers insist that the cosmic shopping list isn’t what religion and prayer are really about; that their own sophisticated theology is the true understanding of God. I get angry when believers insist that the shopping list is a straw man, an outmoded form of religion and prayer that nobody takes seriously, and it’s absurd for atheists to criticize it.

I get angry when believers use terrible, grief-soaked tragedies as either opportunities to toot their own horns and talk about how wonderful their God and their religion are… or as opportunities to attack and demonize atheists and secularism.

I’m angry at the Sunday school teacher who told comic artist Craig Thompson that he couldn’t draw in heaven. And I’m angry that she said it with the complete conviction of authority… when in fact she had no basis whatsoever for that assertion. How the hell did she know what Heaven was like? How could she possibly know that you could sing in heaven but not draw? And why the hell would you say something that squelching and dismissive to a talented child?

I’m angry that Mother Teresa took her personal suffering and despair at her lost faith in God, and turned it into an obsession that led her to treat suffering as a beautiful gift from Christ to humanity, a beautiful offering from humanity to God, and a necessary part of spiritual salvation. And I’m angry that this obsession apparently led her to offer grotesquely inadequate medical care and pain relief at her hospitals and hospices, in essence taking her personal crisis of faith out on millions of desperately poor and helpless people.

I’m angry at the trustee of the local Presbyterian church who told his teenage daughter that he didn’t actually believe in God or religion, but that it was important to keep up his work because without religion there would be no morality in the world.

I’m angry that so many parents and religious leaders terrorize children — who (a) have brains that are hard-wired to trust adults and believe what they’re told, and (b) are very literal-minded — with vivid, traumatizing stories of eternal burning and torture to ensure that they’ll be too frightened to even question religion.

I’m angrier when religious leaders explicitly tell children — and adults, for that matter — that the very questioning of religion and the existence of hell is a dreadful sin, one that will guarantee them that hell is where they’ll end up.

I’m angry that children get taught by religion to hate and fear their bodies and their sexuality. And I’m especially angry that female children get taught by religion to hate and fear their femaleness, and that queer children get taught by religion to hate and fear their queerness.

I’m angry about the Muslim girl in the public school who was told — by her public-school, taxpayer-paid teacher — that the red stripes on Christmas candy canes represented Christ’s blood, that she had to believe in and be saved by Jesus Christ or she’d be condemned to hell, and that if she didn’t, there was no place for her in his classroom. And I’m angry that he told her not to come back to his class when she didn’t convert.

I’m angry — enraged — at the priests who molest children and tell them it’s God’s will. I’m enraged at the Catholic Church that consciously, deliberately, repeatedly, for years, acted to protect priests who molested children, and consciously and deliberately acted to keep it a secret, placing the Church’s reputation as a higher priority than, for fuck’s sake, children not being molested. And I’m enraged that the Church is now trying to argue, in court, that protecting child-molesting priests from prosecution, and shuffling those priests from diocese to diocese so they can molest kids in a whole new community that doesn’t yet suspect them, is a Constitutionally protected form of free religious expression.

I’m angry about 9/11.

And I’m angry that Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and the People For the American Way. I’m angry that the theology of a wrathful God exacting revenge against pagans and abortionists by sending radical Muslims to blow up a building full of secretaries and investment bankers… this was a theology held by a powerful, widely-respected religious leader with millions of followers.

I’m angry that, when my dad had a stroke and went into a nursing home, the staff asked my brother, “Is he a Baptist or a Catholic?” And I’m not just angry on behalf of my atheist dad. I’m angry on behalf of all the Jews, all the Buddhists, all the Muslims, all the neo-Pagans, whose families almost certainly got asked that same question. That question is enormously disrespectful, not just of my dad’s atheism, but of everyone at that nursing home who wasn’t a Baptist or a Catholic.

I’m angry about Ingrid’s grandparents. I’m angry that their fundamentalism was such a huge source of strife and unhappiness in her family, that it alienated them so drastically from their children and grandchildren. I’m angry that they tried to cram it down Ingrid’s throat, to the point that she’s still traumatized by it. And I’m angry that their religion, which if nothing else should have been a comfort to them in their old age, was instead a source of anguish and despair — because they knew their children and grandchildren were all going to be burned and tortured forever in Hell, and how could Heaven be Heaven if their children and grandchildren were being eternally burned and tortured in Hell?

I’m angry that Ingrid and I can’t get legally married in this country — or get legally married in another country and have it recognized by this one — largely because religious leaders oppose it. And I’m angry that both religious and political leaders have discovered that they can score big points exploiting people’s fears about sexuality in a changing world, fanning the flames of those fears… and giving people a religious excuse for why their fears are justified.

I’m angry that huge swaths of public policy in this country — not just on same-sex marriage, but on abortion and stem-cell research and sex education in schools — are being based, not on evidence of which policies do and don’t work and what is and isn’t true about the world, but on religious texts written hundreds or thousands of years ago, and on their own personal feelings about how those texts should be interpreted, with no supporting evidence whatsoever — and no apparent concept of why any evidence should be needed.

I get angry when believers trumpet every good thing that’s ever been done in the name of religion as a reason why religion is a force for good… and then, when confronted with the horrible evils done in religion’s name, say that those evils weren’t done because of religion, were done because of politics of greed or fear or whatever, would have been done anyway even without religion, and shouldn’t be counted as religion’s fault. (Of course, to be fair, I also get angry when atheists do the opposite: chalk up every evil thing done in the name of religion as a black mark on religion’s record, but then insist that the good things were done for other reasons and would have been done anyway, etc. Neither side gets to have it both ways.)

I’m angry at the believers who put decals on their cars with a Faith fish eating a Darwin fish… and who think that’s clever, who think that religious faith really should triumph over science and evidence. I’m angry at believers who have so little respect for the physical world their God supposedly created that they feel perfectly content to ignore the mountains of physical evidence piling up around them about that real world; perfectly content to see that world as somehow less real and true than their personal opinions about God.

(Note: The litany of specific grievances is now more than halfway over. Analysis of why anger is necessary and valuable is coming up soon. Promise.)

Continue reading “Atheists and Anger”

Atheists and Anger

Carnivals and Circles: Liberals, Skeptics, and Women

Carnival time! We’ve got blog carnivals this week from liberals, skeptics, and women! Hey, if we added pagans, queers, and abortionists, we’d have Jerry Falwell’s whole “Secular America, 9/11 is your fault” cabal!

First — in no particular order — Carnival of the Liberals #49, at Tangled Up In Blue Guy. My contribution this time: How Gay Marriage Is Destroying Normal Marriage — No, Really. My favorite other piece in this carnival: The Religious Right Hates America by Daylight Atheism.

Next: Skeptic’s Circle #71, at Infophilia. My piece in this Circle: The Galileo Fallacy, and the Gadfly Corollary. My favorite other piece in this Circle: The Woo Handbook by Skeptico.

Finally: All Women Blogging Carnival at Women Start Your Business Now. My piece in this carnival: A Losing Battle: Is Weight Loss Counter-Productive?.

Bloggers who want to participate in these blog carnivals: here are guidelines and submission forms for the Carnival of the Liberals, Skeptic’s Circle, and All Women Blogging Carnival. Happy blogging!

Carnivals and Circles: Liberals, Skeptics, and Women

Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance

A friend of ours was telling Ingrid about this new woman she’s been dating. Things were going along swimmingly… until it turned out that the new inamorata, a youngish thing in her early thirties, was an AIDS denialist. She was swallowing all that bullshit about how HIV doesn’t really cause AIDS, AIDS drugs are what causes AIDS, and the whole thing is a vast conspiracy by the drug companies to get rich selling people drugs they don’t need and that just make them sick.

This was absolutely the wrong thing to say to our friend, who had been an AIDS activist since the early days of the epidemic, had nursed several beloved friends through the illness, had seen way too many of those friends die… and had seen others come back from the brink of death when the protease inhibitors and combination therapies finally came out.

So Ingrid and I were talking, not only about how ignorant AIDS denialism is and what a perfect example of the Galileo Fallacy it’s proving to be… but also about how profoundly insensitive and clueless it was for this woman to talk this way to someone who’d been through the worst days of the epidemic. Doesn’t she remember? we said. Doesn’t she know what AIDS was like before the drug cocktails came along?

And it occurred to both of us:

No. She doesn’t remember.

And that’s the problem.

There are some AIDS denialists who were around in the ’80s. But an awful lot of them don’t remember. They weren’t around during the early days of the epidemic, when there was absolutely no treatment and your life expectancy when you got diagnosed was a few months, a year or two if you were lucky. They don’t remember the days when a diagnosis was pretty much a death sentence — a sentence to a slow, painful death. (Some people with AIDS lived through those days to tell the tale, but not many.) They don’t remember having half their gay male friends get sick and die. They don’t remember people lying in the streets screaming for the medical establishment to fucking pay attention and work on a treatment, some treatment, any treatment at all.

And they don’t remember what it was like when the cocktail came along, and suddenly people started getting better and living longer. They don’t remember the wonderful (although not entirely trivial) “problem” of people with AIDS who had quit their jobs and run up huge credit card debts, and now actually expected to live for a while. They don’t remember what it was like when AIDS turned, almost overnight, from a deadly illness to a chronic but often survivable one.

To them, AIDS has always been what it is now. They look at HIV and AIDS, and they see a bad disease, one that still kills a lot of people and makes a lot of people pretty damn sick, but also one that people have a decent chance of surviving for a good long time. They see the cocktail making some people feel crappy. And they see the cocktail being really expensive, and making drug companies very rich indeed.

What’s more, they have little or no awareness of what AIDS is still like in Africa, and other places where prevention and treatment still range from lousy to non-existent… and where the pandemic is as bad or worse as it ever was in its early days in the U.S.

So it’s much easier for them to ignore or dismiss the effectiveness of the cocktail, and to treat it as a drug-company conspiracy. It’s easier for them to see themselves as brave Galileos for resisting the “lie” of HIV drugs… because they have no memory of the harsh, horrible truth of HIV before the drugs came along.

And I think the same thing is happening with the vaccine resisters: the people who insist that vaccines — measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, what have you — are useless poison, foisted on an unsuspecting public by a Big Pharma cabal of cackling men in expensive suits.

The problem, again, is that they don’t remember.

They don’t remember what the world was like before the vaccines. They don’t remember the polio epidemic that killed thousands of children and disabled tens of thousands — in 1952 alone. They don’t remember the rubella pandemic of the 1960s, when tens of thousands of babies were born dead or with birth defects because their mothers were infected. (FYI, I could easily have been one of those babies — my mother got rubella shortly after I was born, and it could easily have been just a little earlier when she was pregnant with me.) They don’t remember the time when people routinely died of lockjaw… and they don’t live in non-industrial parts of the world where people still do.

All they see is a world in which polio, rubella, tetanus, etc. almost never appear… and people are immunized against them for no apparent reason.

See, this is the problem with public health efforts that work. When they work, they quickly become invisible. It’s very hard to see prevention working: when it works, you don’t see it. So it’s easy for people to see things like immunization as pointless. They do happen for no apparent reason… “apparent” being the operative word. The reason is very good indeed, the reason is unassailably excellent — but unless you’ve lived in a world without immunization, the reason isn’t very apparent at all.

(Interestingly, the conspiracy theorists linking vaccination with, for instance, autism don’t seem very interested in the actual, documented, verified conspiracy in which the researcher who originally published the now-discredited “vaccines cause autism” study was paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by trial lawyers trying to prove that vaccines were harmful. Links here and here, via Wikipedia.)

Look. I’m no great friend of the drug companies. I get that the way health care is handled in this country is — how shall I put this? — evil. Its purpose is largely to make insurance and drug companies rich, not to help healthy people stay healthy or sick people get better. Ingrid works in health care in this country, and she could tell you stories that would curl your hair. See “Sicko” if you don’t believe me.

But that doesn’t mean that AIDS drugs don’t work. And it doesn’t mean that vaccines don’t work. The evidence is overwhelming that they do.

Yes, our country’s health care system sucks. But our educational system sucks as well. And one of the ways it sucks the most is in its failure to teach reasoning, cause-and-effect… and history. The history of AIDS drugs, and the history of vaccines, are a history of the prevention of pointless suffering and death — millions of times over.

P.S. I will warn you right now: I am not going to get into debates with AIDS denialists or vaccine resisters in this blog. I don’t have the patience, and other people make these arguments better than I can. AIDS denialists or vaccine resisters are hereby directed to Denialism and to Skeptico. My apologies in advance to the keepers of those blogs. I’m putting you both on my blogroll to make up for it.

Addendum: Or you could go to Aetiology, where they linked to this post and are having a lively discussion about it. And thanks to both Aetiology and Denialism for the links!

Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance

Sacrificing Your Legal Rights, or, Why Robin Tyler is an Asshole

A little backstory first.

There’s a big kerfuffle in the world of gay politics about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, now in front of Congress, that would ban job discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transpeople. Kerfuffle in a nutshell: Some politicos and gay-rights lobbyists are advocating for, or else not speaking very strongly against, stripping the bill of its protections for transpeople, and limiting it to the LGBs in the LGBT community. (To be more accurate, there are now two versions of ENDA, one with the language protecting transpeople and one without: the question is whether we should support both bills or just the stronger trans-inclusive one. To be even more accurate would require me to write a whole goddamn novel. Google “Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” or visit the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, if you want to know more.)

Which brings me to what Robin Tyler, longtime lesbian activist, had to say about it:

I agree with Barney Frank. I support full transgender rights. However, when I have been invited to the legal weddings of some of my transgender friends, not one of them has said “we will not get married until Diane and you and other same gender couples can get married”. They did not sacrifice their legal rights on the alter of political correctness, to give up the benefits of marriage. And yet the lesbian and gay community is expected to do so, leaving millions and millions of us in the majority of states, once again, unprotected.

There are so many things wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin. So I’m going to limit myself to three.

One: How exactly would this help?

In the absence of a well-publicized nationwide boycott on marriage, how would individual transgendered heterosexuals refusing to marry until same-sex couples can get married in any way help the cause of same-sex marriage?

I’ve had hetero friends nobly say that they won’t get married until same-sex couples can get married. I think the sentiment is sweet, but I also think it’s completely pointless. Their refusal to get married does me — and the cause of same-sex marriage — no good at all. It’s a touching personal gesture, and if they feel that strongly about not wanting to participate in an injustice I won’t argue with them… but as an effective political act, it’s totally useless.

On the other hand, pushing for trans inclusion in ENDA — and refusing to accept or endorse ENDA if it’s not trans inclusive — does help. As many people in this debate have pointed out, ENDA isn’t going to become law while Bush is President anyway. It may not even pass the Senate, even in the watered-down version. It’s going to take several practice runs until it gets passed by both houses and signed by the Pres. And if we insist that gender identity be included in this practice run along with sexual orientation, it familiarizes Congress with the issues and the language of trans rights, and makes it that much easier to get the gender identity language included when we actually do get the thing passed.

Two: For lesbians, gays, and bisexuals to ask transpeople to make “sacrifices” for us is laughable. T’s have been getting the short end of the LGBT stick for years. The fact that heterosexual T’s have one goddamn right that G’s and L’s and same-sex-oriented B’s and T’s don’t have… this hardly balances the scales. It’s hardly the injustice of the century. To present transpeople as a privileged class who should be willing to sacrifice some rights to be in solidarity with their oppressed gay/ lesbian/ bi siblings… it’d be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic.

Is Ms. Tyler prepared to give up the rights she has in cities and states where GLB’s have legal protections but T’s don’t? Is she willing to not sue for discrimination, not file hate crime charges, etc., in cities and states that give these protections to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but not to transpeople? If not, then she absolutely does not have a point. Or rather, she has a point, but it’s shaped like a corkscrew.

Three: She spelled “altar” wrong.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Sacrificing Your Legal Rights, or, Why Robin Tyler is an Asshole

How Gay Marriage Is Destroying Normal Marriage — No, Really

There’s a trope that I hear a lot among people who support same-sex marriage. It goes like this:

“What are these people so afraid of? How does same-sex marriage destroy marriage? How on earth could my marriage in any way affect anybody else’s?”

Or, when spoken by heterosexual supporters of same-sex marriage: “How on earth could somebody else’s marriage in any way affect mine?”

Of course I see what they’re getting at. And I certainly appreciate the sentiment and support behind the statement. But I actually think it’s somewhat simplistic, maybe even a bit naive. I think same-sex marriage does, and will, have an effect on opposite-sex marriage.

Not in an immediate cause-and-effect way, of course. When Adam and Stephen get married in Massachusetts, it doesn’t send out magical death-rays across the country to destroy the marriage of Alan and Evelyn in Kansas.

But I think it has an effect. Not a trivial one, either. And I think the movement to legalize same-sex marriage does itself a disservice by acting like it doesn’t.

Here’s why.

In order for our society to accept or even tolerate same-sex marriage, a lot of fairly basic, deep-rooted ideas have to change. The way we define family. The way we think of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman. The importance of sex and sexual fulfillment. What we consider natural and normal. Etc., etc., etc.

All of these things shape our practice of marriage, our understanding of what it is and what it’s for. And in order for us to accept or even tolerate same-sex marriage, all of them will need to change.

Thus changing the shape of marriage.

All marriage.

Including the opposite-sex ones.

If for no other reason, the standard default answers to these questions will quit being standard and default. If these changes happen, people will still be free to define family, maleness, femaleness, etc., in the old traditional ways. But they’ll be forced to think about it, to see the traditional way as just one choice among many, to live that way because it works for them… instead of unthinkingly falling into it as the one right choice that works for everybody. What’s more, they’ll be forced to see all these different questions and choices as, well, different questions and choices, instead of a package deal.

And that’s a big-ass change.

Of course, while the fight for same-sex marriage is a catalyst for some of these changes, it’s hardly the only one. Lots of these changes were already happening, even before same-sex marriage got put on the table. In fact, same-sex marriage couldn’t have gotten on the table in the first place if these changes hadn’t already been happening. But it is a catalyst for change, and I don’t want to ignore that or pretend it isn’t true.

What I don’t understand is why that’s a bad thing.

Opponents of same-sex marriage talk about marriage as if it’s been an unchanging institution for thousands of years, one that can’t be altered even a little without risking its destruction. But this is clearly absurd. Marriage has been many different things in human history — radically different things. A property transfer from father to husband. A political and military alliance between nations. A means of producing and caring for children. A means of preserving a religion or race (think of the intense resistance throughout history to both interracial and interfaith marriage). A practical arrangement for keeping a family farm or business. A romantic love match that’s meant to last until death. A spiritual bond that’s meant to last for eternity. And more. And any combination of any of these.

And marriage has taken many forms in its checkered history. From the hundreds of wives of Solomon and others, to the passing down of a wife from brother to brother (also described in the Bible), to a permanent inescapable contract with mistresses and lovers on the side, to the serial monogamy-in-theory that seems to be the contemporary model… the literal, practical shape of marriage has taken wildly different forms over the centuries, and will no doubt continue to take more.

So the fact that the institution of marriage is changing  that’s hardly devastating news. People resisted the legalization of interracial marriage with every bit as much fervor as they resist same-sex marriage now, and for many of the same reasons… and yet the institution of marriage has absorbed that change quite handily, and has soldiered on. The institution is changing, it has always been changing, and it will almost certainly continue to change.

And again I ask: Why is this a bad thing?

And why are these particular changes, the ones that same-sex marriage is both the cause and result of… why are they so much to be feared?

Our definition of family should be broadened. The way we think of maleness and femaleness should be more flexible. Sex should be acknowledged as a central part of human life, and as a basic human right. What we consider to be natural should be more in keeping with the actual reality of nature. And we should be questioning, not only what is and isn’t normal, but whether normality is even a quality we should be prizing.

Not just so we can get to a place where we can accept same-sex marriage… but so we can help make opposite-sex marriage, and all relationships, and life in general for everybody, happier and more fulfilling.

How Gay Marriage Is Destroying Normal Marriage — No, Really

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