The Fetish of Patriotism

By D Frederick Sparks


In July, Hillary Clinton was criticized for not wearing an American flag pin while delivering her acceptance speech as the first woman nominee of a major political party, even though I recall a huge American Flag being projected on the large screen behind her.   Just a few weeks ago, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas faced the wrath of social media patriots for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the national anthem.  Now, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has ignited a firestorm for his deliberate refusal to stand for the raising of the flag and the national anthem, which he explains was a protest against police brutality and other forms of persistent discrimination against African-Americans.

People who criticize what they see as disrespect to the symbols of patriotism endow these symbols with far-ranging meaning,  from the over-arching ideals of American freedom and democracy, to a love of one’s fellow citizens, to an appreciation for those who have served/do serve in the U.S. armed forces.

And that is exactly how symbols function.  They crystallize and communicate large concepts in a succinct and hopefully commonly understood manner.  And when those concepts have particular emotional reverence for people, then a sentimental attachment to those symbols naturally follows.

I can personally relate to this. As many other married couples do, my husband and I exchanged rings on our wedding day that we wear daily.  It is such a constant that most the time I don’t even notice it’s there, but one day a few months ago I realized it was gone.  I panicked and was immediately distressed, as I thought about the happiness of our wedding day and the degree to which the ring represented that.  I was relieved to find that it had slipped off and was nestled in the bed sheets.

But let’s say our wedding day was an unmitigated disaster, and our marriage was characterized by physical and emotional abuse , mistrust, and a lack of intimacy.  How much sense would it make at that point to feel the same emotional resonance around the ring? And it would certainly be absurd for me to place MORE importance on the ring than on the nuts and bolts of the relationship that it supposedly symbolizes.

And that’s exactly how I view those critics who are apoplectic about these instances of “disrespect’ for the flag and the anthem.  For those who say the flag represents our freedom, I say how do you feel about the fact that the state of North Carolina was caught red-handed attempting to make it more difficult for African-American voters to exercise their franchise? Have you expressed your outrage at the continued erosion of the 4th amendment protections against illegal search and seizure?  I am more concerned with the state of our actual freedoms than with the ceremonial deference presumptively owed the putative symbols of those freedoms.

The “disrespect for our troops” line of attack is equally facile.   Here’s how I think we should show respect for our troops:  1) Don’t risk their lives and limbs for bullshit reasons   2) Make sure they have everything they need when they return from combat.  Many veterans and active military members  are also speaking out on being used as pawns in the debate about the Kaepernick protest, with some parsing the difference between disagreeing with his stance and protecting his right to free speech, with others, particularly African-American soldiers, echoing their agreement with the issues he has attempted to highlight.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the use of symbols to represent cherished ideals.  But the symbols should not be fetishized to the point that the symbol receives more attention than the underlying realities associated with the symbol.

The Fetish of Patriotism

A White Male Led Revolution Against American Inequality, You Say?

Except for in the minds of math denialists, the democratic primary battle is over. Hillary Clinton will be the nominee, and supporters of Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders himself, will decide whether they support her in the upcoming general election contest against Donald Trump.

This primary battle has been fascinating for a number of reasons. What stands out for me is the degree to which demographic patterns of voter support have been consistent. Demographic based projections such as those employed by Benchmark Politics have proven more accurate than any polls or polls based analysis concerning the results of primaries and caucuses. With few exceptions, Clinton has won states with higher levels of nonwhite voters, particularly African Americans, and Sanders has won states that are overwhelmingly white.

The 2008 democratic primaries also followed some demographic patterns. President Obama certainly benefited from high black population states; in fact, his Super Tuesday victories in the South sealed the nomination for him. But Obama also won states like Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Idaho, and lost New York, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio. So with no black candidate in the race, surprisingly the 2016 contest is more racially polarized in terms whom voters support than the 2008 contest was. But in any event it is justifiable to say that Sanders support is largely white male and Clinton has been buoyed by people of color. It doesn’t “erase” any of the women or people of color who support Sanders to state that numerical and statistical fact. It is a valid generalization supported by empirical evidence.

And this occurs underneath a Sanders campaign that has elevated the social discourse about income equality. People who would have rarely used the words oligarch or establishment a year ago now use them quite frequently in social media postings. And whether or not you support Bernie Sanders has become a litmus test for whether or not you get the real story behind economic inequality or whether you are just another establishment supporting stooge.

This ends up resulting in the amusing proposition that white men are the backbone of the political revolution against income inequality and are carrying this out by supporting the candidacy of a white man, and all these people of color who haven’t Felt the Bern just don’t get it. Amusing, because I think most white left progressives have a huge blind spot when it comes to the reality of race and inequality.

America isn’t Russia or any European country; American income inequality is specifically rooted in American racism. It isn’t something that will resolve itself once you address income inequality. It is part and parcel and has to be addressed before there is any hope of a “political revolution” against inequality.

In a 2014 interview Bernie Sanders stated that working class whites were the largest voting bloc, and therefore if they could be brought into the liberal fold, you would have your political revolution. The problem with this is it skips over the reason they are not in the fold in the first place…their own racism. Working class whites abandoned the democratic party because of the Civil Rights Act and the infamous “southern strategy”. Working class whites opposed attempts at “socialized medicine” that would have integrated southern hospitals.

And exactly what “fold” are you bringing them into? Right now, particularly within the context of democratic party politics, that fold is anchored by African American women voters, and anyone planning on launching his political revolution from the base of the democratic party really should have known that. You cannot bring working class whites into a fold of black women and other minorities without confronting the racism of working class whites. The racial resentment of many working class whites is strong enough that they’d rather see no one with things like free college than to see black people benefit from such a thing.  

Sanders and other white progressives have long been challenged on this by people of color, but as Sikivu Hutchinson noted, Sanders and his ilk have longed disdained any inter-sectional analysis on race and income inequality.   Sanders isn’t immune to these kind of racial blind spots because he participated in protests against housing discrimination in the 1960s.   The more I talk to people of color and women who have long been involved in liberal politics, the more they confirm that white male left progressives can exhibit as much racial arrogance and misogyny as their conservative counterparts.

This blind spot, not being able to see these things because they don’t have to, is why I find it highly unlikely that white male left progressives are going to be the ones who identify and anoint the messianic figure in American politics who will lead the revolution against inequality. And if I had to wager, I wouldn’t put my money on said messianic figure being a privileged white male from the Northeast. I’d put my money on a black woman from the south or a Latina from the Southwest, someone who on an ontological and inter-sectional level understands the various power paradigms that contribute to unfairness in this country and can competently speak to and address all of them, and not just get fixated on one.

A White Male Led Revolution Against American Inequality, You Say?

Now Accepting Applications for Black Skeptics Scholarships!

The  Black Skeptics Scholarship Committee is now accepting applications for our First in Family and Catherine Fahringer Memorial scholarships.

The First in Family Humanist Scholarship: Four $1,000 scholarships are awarded to high school youth to assist with their tuition, room and board, books, and other academic resources. This award is available to anyone who attends the Los Angeles Unified School District and are accepted into two or four-year colleges regardless of if they are religions or not. Preference is given to students of color (Black/African American, Latino(a), Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American) who are (or have been) in foster care, homeless, undocumented and/or LGBTQ (system involved youth applicants are also welcome).

The Freedom From Religion Foundation Catherine Fahringer Memorial Scholarship: Four $2,500 scholarships are awarded to high school youth to assist with their tuition, room and board, books, and other academic resources. This award is available to high school youth who live in the U.S. who identify as atheist, agnostic, humanist and/or secular, and are accepted into two or four-year colleges. Preference is given to students of color (Black/African American, Latino(a), Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American).

These awards are made possible through the support of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and various members of the atheist/secular community.  Please pass on the information to eligible students!

Online and pdf versions of the application are available here.

Now Accepting Applications for Black Skeptics Scholarships!

Physicians and Social Justice

by D. Frederick Sparks

The classic version of the Hippocratic Oath states that a physician should keep the sick from “harm and injustice”.  A modern version of the oath used in many medical schools declares that physicians should remember that they remain members of society, “with special obligations to all fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.”

For some physicians, living out the promises of their oaths manifests itself in using their platform and medical expertise to highlight issues of social justice and social inequality, and in particular, the degree to which social inequities impact health outcomes.

Physicians and Criminal Justice Reform

In 2013, the venerable television show Sesame Street introduced the character Alex, a young boy who reluctantly reveals to his friends that his father is incarcerated.  Alex serves as a voice for the increasing number of children with at least one incarcerated parent.

The introduction of this character served as an unlikely catalyst for a group of physicians to make a call to action for doctors to address the impact of mass incarceration on health outcomes. In an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine,  the group of doctors noted that incarceration is a Social Determinant of Health (SDOH), and that SDOHs such as incarceration, poverty, and housing and educational disparities shape patients’  health and access to care.  The article also notes that while incarceration is a finite experience, a history of incarceration may lead to lasting negative health outcomes, as the formerly incarcerated experience  higher rates of homelessness, lower rates of employment, and permanent disqualification from many anti-poverty and health assistance programs all of which are factors associated with poorer health.  Importantly, the health consequences affect not only to the incarcerated person, but also the family members including children.

The organization Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform  (PfCJR) was launched in May 11, 2015, co-founded by  Dr. Edjah Nduom, a  neurosurgeon (all similarities to a former presidential candidate end there) currently serving as a Staff Clinician in the Surgical Neurology Branch at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Nzinga Harrison, a psychiatrist who is the Chief Medical Officer for Anka Behavioral Health, Inc., a private, non-profit mental health system.   According to Dr. Nduom,  the organization was struck by the myriad of ways in which negative interactions with the criminal justice system lead to detrimental health consequences. They believe that changing the interactions between the criminal justice system and targeted communities will lead to improved health outcomes.  PfCJR has organized its advocacy efforts around three core issues:

  • Decriminalization of mental health and addictive disorders, noting that individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility and 40 percent of individuals with a severe mental illness will have spent some time in their lives in either jail, prison, or community corrections.
  • Reform of the juvenile justice system to identify and divert at risk adolescents, as research suggests that as many as 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.   And youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than are youth housed in juvenile detention facilities.   Also,  youth under the age of 18 represented 21 percent of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005, and 13 percent in 2006 – despite the fact that only 1 percent of inmates are juveniles, a
  • Provision of adequate access to physical and psychiatric health care for current inmates. Prison inmates have a higher incidence of chronic and infectious diseases, such as AIDS and hepatitis C, and mental illness than that of the general population.

Since its founding, PfCJR has established several partnerships to help physicians use their specific medical expertise to further the cause of one of the most significant civil rights issues of our time. In a new partnership with the Campaign for Youth Justice, they are using their knowledge of the difference between the brain biology of juveniles and adults to support the need to #raisetheage of criminal responsibility in states that treat juvenile offenders as adults. The group has also been traveling the country, presenting for the American Medical Association Young Physicians Section, the Student National Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Physicians Alliance. “All physicians naturally want to find ways to improve the health of our communities,” says Dr Nduom. “When we let our colleagues know the many ways that healthcare intersects with the criminal justice system, many physicians find that they are already working on our core issues, but did not realize that their work was actually part of a social justice movement.”

Targeted Services to Underserved Populations

In addition to specific political and civic advocacy, physicians contribute to the push for social justice through targeted services to underserved populations. The French founded group Doctors Without Borders is one of the most well-known groups providing medical services and supplies to disadvantaged populations globally.   More locally, In Los Angeles and other cities, many doctors are practicing ‘street medicine‘ ,  in which healthcare providers go to where homeless patients are, rather than waiting for them to come to offices and emergency rooms.  Other physicians have specifically targeted under-served populations within their research and clinical practice.  Dr. Sande Okelo,  Division Chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA,  focuses on developing tools and strategies to improve asthma care, particularly for poor, minority and under-served children who are most at risk for poor asthma care and poor outcomes.

Public Trust and the Medical Profession

A study completed in 2014 found that, in the United States, the level of public trust in physicians as a group ranked near the bottom of trust levels in 29 industrialized countries (though, paradoxically, Americans reported higher satisfaction with their individual health care provider than with providers as a group).  The level of mistrust, particularly when it comes to participating in medical research studies, is more pronounced among African-Americans.   The author of the 2014 report stated that a key to improving this perception may be physicians and professional societies like the AMA taking “more visible stands on issues broadly affecting people’s health.”  The work that some physicians are doing around criminal justice reform, access for underserved populations, and other social justice issues may help not only in providing a more comprehensive level of care that considers various societal inputs to health outcomes, but may also serve to enhance public trust in the profession.

Physicians and Social Justice

Welcome to the new Home of Black Skeptics!

By D. Frederick Sparks

The Black Skeptics blog is pleased to announce our new home here at The Orbit! We share this space with a collection of atheist/secular bloggers with a specific commitment to diversity and social justice, and we are excited about what the future holds.  We will continue to serve as a forum to highlight issues specific to secularism and communities of color and social justice.

We will be forever appreciative for the support we received from PZ Myers and everyone at our old home, FreeThoughtBlogs. While we are working on transferring our old posts to the new site, they will still be available at FTB .

I also want to take this opportunity to plug our organization Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA), a community-based, all volunteer, non-profit organization that provides resources and education for non-believers, humanists and secularists of color.

One of BSLA’s most important undertakings is our First in Family Humanist Scholarship, an initiative launched in 2013 to provide resources to undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college.  As a member of the scholarship committee tasked with reading the applications, I have been moved and humbled by the stories of young people from the most marginalized segments of our society who strive to attain their goals through education and who have already demonstrated a commitment to bettering the world around them.  We hope that you will join us in supporting this worthwhile endeavor.

Welcome to The Orbit!



Welcome to the new Home of Black Skeptics!