May 29, 2016

Feminism at the Movies

There's a new Ghostbusters trailer.  It's all women, so of course a bunch of MRAs are screaming about icky girls ruining their (apparently ongoing) childhoods.  But they seem to have picked a much softer target than Mad Max: the trailer gives every indication that we're in for another boring retread by a studio out of ideas and looking to cash in on nostalgia. Am I seriously going to have to go see this to piss them off?  Even from an SJW perspective, I can't have been the only one bothered by the portrayal of the black girl, right?  The white girls got to be "funny", smart, proactive--and the black girl got to be ... the stereotype of a loud black girl.  Yet many SJW types seem excited by it for some reason?  Sigh.  Equal and opposite to the tendency to dislike things just because they don't conform your agenda is the tendency to like things just because they DO--and if you doubt me, google 'Kirk Cameron'.

While we're on the subject of retreads and social themes in movies, I finally saw the new Star Wars.  It wasn't perfect ... but I liked it.  I liked it a lot better than any of the prequels, including Revenge of the Sith (formerly known as 'the good one').  It was an actual goddam Star Wars movie.  True, as someone said, it felt like a cross between a reboot and an homage by someone who wasn't clear on the difference between a reboot and an homage.  But when I saw that stormtrooper refuse to fire on innocent villagers, and then come back to his ship and pull off his helmet an emotional wreck, I cared about what happened to that stormtrooper.  And when we met Rey, and saw her hard scavenging life, and saw her stick up for a droid, I cared about what happened to Rey.  And that right there is far more than can be said for the prequels, where the only caring-for was a carry-over from the original trilogy.

The only thing that really bugged me was Finn.  One, he's black.  Not 'black in a leading role', not 'black in Star Wars', but 'black in the Empire First Order.'  The Empire was species-ist, sexist, and racist--wall-to-wall white dudes oppressing a gender-, color-, and species-diverse Rebellion (by the third movie, anyway).  Changing that fundamental dynamic requires more explanation than "none whatsoever."

Two: Finn is conversant; funny; quick on his feet; lies to impress a girl; convinces a skeptical third party to go along (and how refreshing to see a movie where the guy admits to a lie because it's the right thing to do rather than being found out!); and is generally a fun, charismatic character.  This is a bit odd for someone trained from birth in a program of combat drills and indoctrination so thoroughgoing that he didn't even have a name.  But boom!--he defects, and then he's more or less a normal guy.  Shouldn't he be a bit more ... damaged?  Like, Kurt-Russell-in-Soldier-level damaged?

But ah well.  It was good stuff--compelling characters, beautiful effects--and I'll definitely be seeing it again.

Feb 28, 2016

True Religion

Saw this video on a friend's wall:

Sorry for the lack of embed, but it's on Facebook. In it, a Muslim tells us that the extremists are not of true Islam.  I know where he's coming from, but ...

I was raised in a nasty version of Christianity, and as I got older and found a voice to fire back, I was largely met with the Christian version of this guy: people who simply deny that the violent, the abusers, the guilters, the terrorists are "real Christians". Those infinitely more interested in defending the good name of the tribe than in listening to its victims. Not one of us, not my problem, they say, and cherry pick some verse or another to back up their position.

In other words, they make the very same argument--cherry picked scripture and all!--that the extremists made about them for, oh, I don't know, the entirety of my childhood. Now who's right, exactly? Yeah, sure enough, the nice ones are right--the Bible really does say, "Do unto others." But hey, look at that! The nasty ones are right, too--the Bible really does say to kill the gays and breathes nary a word of condemnation for the slave trade it established.

So long as the 'good' ones continue to proclaim the book in which the bad stuff is written, and the epistemology of blind faith and revelation which leads to it, any argument just boils to down "Nuh uh YOU'RE wrong." I suppose it's true that the good ones do less damage, but they cover for the bad ones. Keep telling people that "God" can speak to them and sure enough "God" will keep telling people some really nasty shit--and what do you say in return, having once told them to follow that voice against the world? Proclaim as the perfect source of all morality a book that will not suffer a woman to teach--are you then innocent when others discriminate against women on its basis?

I'm not as intimately familiar with Islam as with Christianity, but in this at least they are precisely analogous.

Jun 29, 2015

Poor Wayfaring Dreher

"Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now," writes Dreher, implying that Orthodox Christians in America had been looking to the Republican Party to save them.

From the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, I can imagine no stronger indictment of "Orthodox Christianity" than that such a thing could be thought, written--apparently in all seriousness--and then published by a major news organization without anyone thinking anything of it.  One traditionally thinks of Orthodox Christians, in America or otherwise, as turning to Jesus to save them, but in my four years an atheist I seem to have fallen behind the times.  Like the Israelites of old, they have turned to Egypt for their succor and found it a staff of crushed reed, an "ally" who only ever intended to use and betray.

But now, deprived of both their asserted "right" to bend the law in service of their oppression and of any knowledge of what their sacred text actually says about marriage (virgin-saving and polygamy both come to mind), they find themselves cast adrift, exiles in a cruel, debauched world which crucified their very Lord.

In the mouths of the overweight majority of the richest and most powerful nation that ever existed, the persecution narrative becomes a marvelous emetic.  Christians must paint themselves as victims--as the outcast, the persecuted, those despised of the world.  Jesus promised his followers that they would be exiles; at least some of these lily-white Republican stooges have read those passages, and the implications lay buried in their collective subconscious like a stinger.  If we're not being persecuted, then we're not followers of Christ, and Dreher's jawdroppingly un-self-aware whinge is but the latest pearl to grow from that sand-grain abyss.

Middle-aged white dudes wrapping themselves in the shawl of misery and LARP-ing out 'Poor Wayfaring Stranger' would be hilarious were the underlying terror less heartfelt, and that terror would be pitiable were it not for the suffering they inflict on others to assuage it.  Make no mistake: Team Evil does not consist solely of knuckle-dragging bigots justifying their inborn hatred with a few clobber passages, nor does the remainder consist entirely of decent people who just can't square the good they want to do with the evil that the Bible commands.  Beneath and woven through them both is fear--fear at the juxtaposition of their station and their beliefs, a fear so profound that in their desperation they latched onto something this stupid in order to wish it away.

This is as charitable a picture as I am able to paint of those now falling onto their carefully positioned fainting couches, and it is dredged from my own experience at considerable emotional expense.  Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps he is not tormented by his faith into tormenting others.  But being as how his politics and beliefs have tormented others, eliminating fear reduces the field of explanations to malice and stupidity. If you look at this great milestone towards the end of oppression, violence, and hate, and all you've got is "Woe is me!" then you're either a horrible person or you're really fucking dumb.

And whatever else he is, Dreher isn't dumb.

Jun 18, 2015

Picking a Translation

The first thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Quran is the same thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Bible: there's no such thing, at least for those of us not sufficiently versed in ancient languages to crack open the original.  I expected to have to choose a translation, but I didn't expect to have 57* translations** to choose from.

When I was on the mission field, it was a common complaint that despite the dozens--hundreds--of translations of the Bible into English, we were wasting resources adding more and more and more when so many languages didn't even have one translation.  These days I'm more inclined to suggest that if not one of a hundred extant translations lives up to your expectations, then perhaps the problem lies with your expectations.  Perfection is a heavy burden for a text to bear.

Still, I want to give this thing a fair shake, not stumble into the Islamic equivalent of The Message.  I called up the local mosque and was directed to The Noble Quran***, a Saudi-backed translation billed as the most widely disseminated.  It's also been slammed as the most extremist, interpolating the text with parenthetical additions consisting of medieval screeds and polemics on modern Middle Eastern politics.  In the very first Surah we find denigration of "those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews)", whose crooked ways are contrasted with the straight ones that we should be following.

Well if I wanted to hear about a people being under God's wrath by virtue of birth, I'd go read Luther.  This is the most widely disseminated version?  The go-to answer for the first Mosque on google that picked up the phone?  Yikes.

Understand, I'm not saying this is any worse for Islam than the "kill the gays" bits of the Bible are for Christians.  But I'm sort of used to the Christian Bible saying kill the gays, and I'm not really used to anyone who's trying for respectability just out and ranting about The Jews in public.  This is part of the problem with Western perception of Islam.  Christianity's sins--textual and practical--have become the wallpaper, whereas the casual Western observer of Islam can find much that, in its newness, still shocks.  This is not an argument for the normalization of Islam, though--it's a call to bring the hammer down on Christianity.  If the gays came out with a book that said to kill the Christians, you'd better believe they'd be taken to task for it, and rightly so--but no such accounting is demanded of those that cleave to the Bible.

At any rate I'll do one better for Islamic PR than it just did for itself and avoid that particular text.

I find myself drawn to the descriptions of two versions: The Holy Qu'ran by Muhammed 'Ali, the favored text of the Nation of Islam, and copiously footnoted, whose anti-miraculism might prove something of a counter-measure to normal dialectic of "The fact that we now know what it says is wrong isn't sufficient grounds to claim that's not what it means."  The other, alleged to be accurate, beautiful, and free of prejudice, is Arberry's The Koran Interpreted.  Both texts are available for free online at the links that I've provided.

I plan, at least at first, to read the text in both translations, and at the very least skim the footnotes, before recording my reactions.  We'll see how it goes.  The whole endeavor is very much a work in progress, so please bear with.

*Counting (and perhaps miscounting) only direct-to-English translations.

**I'm also aware of the Islamic tradition that no true translation of the Quran is actually possible.  This is correct, but trivial--I'm a former professional translator, and I can safely report that no "true" translation of anything is possible.  All translations are paraphrase--though some are more paraphrase than others--and they all make tradeoffs between rhythm, poetry, connotation, references, double-meanings, idiom, readability, and grammatical construction.  Even reading in the original, the translation from the page to the mind is problematic: no two people will come away with exactly the same impressions of a text's "true" meaning.  That said, the text consists of words, and those words have meanings, and anyone who insists otherwise is selling something.

***Text available here.

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Jun 11, 2015

Reading the Quran, Intro

A nonbeliever was once traveling through Northern Ireland back when the Northern Irelanders were slaughtering each other for being the wrong sort of follower of the Prince of Peace.  He was stopped at a roadblock by unknown assailants: "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" came the menacing question.

"I'm an atheist," he replied.

Undeterred, the questioner demanded: "Well are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

I never really believed in Vishnu.  I didn't agonize for years about reconciling Vishnu with what I could observe to be true.  I wasn't mind-fucked by Vishnu's followers and indoctrination.  I don't feel an urgent need for atonement through opposition to the sins of Vishnu's tribe, as I was never a participant.  Of course Vishnu isn't real, and of course bad things are bad things whether it's Hindus or Christians or atheists doing them.  But Vishnu isn't near to my heart in that Morgul-blade sort of way that Southern Baptist Jesus still is.  I am very much a Protestant atheist.

That personal history informs my encounters with other faiths.  When all you have is a rage-fired hate-crossbow, every problem looks like a zombie, and while I never really expect to like what I see when I look at religion, the itchy trigger finger can make an honest examination difficult.  Here we have the indoctrination of children,  the unsupported truth claims, and the harmful and antiquated morality propped up by the arrogated word of the divine; there we see the social circles so beloved of its members and so oblivious and sickeningly hurtful to those excluded; and finally we are reminded of the good commandments, and asked not to notice that they are supported by the same epistemology which upholds the bad.

How shall we react?

But the attempt should nonetheless be made.  So, I'm going to read the Quran.  It's an idea that's been rattling around in my head for a while now: to have an honest encounter--including an honest accounting for my history and viewpoint, which you're currently reading--with the "sacred" texts, and to set down my thoughts and reactions.  I've just recently started a new job, so I have no idea what kind of posting schedule I'll be able to manage, but I'll strive for regularity and at least weekly updates.

So with all that out of the way, stay tuned for more.

May 22, 2015

Better a millstone ...

It seems that a self-righteous pack of libelous discrimination advocates are in fact sex criminals. But that snarky sentence doesn't really capture the horror of the thing.  What's worse, Josh Duggar is already being referred to as a broken hero, as if anyone who worked for the FRC was ever anything but a villain.

Let us speak plainly.

Josh Duggar was evil through and through; the only thing that we found out today was that he was evil in one more way--and what a way!--than we thought. He's vile "moralist" known primarily for lying about gay people in order to deny them rights, and now we find out he's a sex criminal to boot.

Josh Duggar's entire life was premised around being better than gays (he worked for the FRC fer chrissakes!), and now that he's fallen we find Christianity teaching us that we're no better than him? This is a vile, anti-human preachment.

This article, like Josh's "statement", displays zero--ZERO--empathy for his victims, either of his political stances or of his unpardonable crimes, instead spending its moral energy equating doubting God and consensual sex with murder. The utter warping of the moral compass displayed not only by this family but by their defenders and commentators should be sufficient in itself, apart from any other evidence, to convince one absolutely that Christianity is a festering malignancy on the soul of humanity that it is the duty of all those who seek the good to excise.

There is no hell hot enough, nor eternity long enough, for those who do this to children, and for those who cover for them. Child molestation, and aiding and abetting it, is the vilest act that anyone can commit, and the juxtaposition with their stuck-up moralizing is galling beyond what mortal tongues can convey.

These are deeply evil people and I'm truly sorry that the consequences of their evil will not be more dire--for them. For their victims, of course, it is already quite dire enough.

Apr 3, 2015

The Church of Harvey Fierstein

I'm a bit late to the pile-on, but this is too awesome not to share.

Plus ... it's not really hypothetical.  I have personally been in that exact situation (well, a close analog anyway).

Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria have long denied Evangelicals many basic rights and privileges on the basis of their religious convictions.  Seen it myself.

Then I got back to the States and--whoops!--the only difference between the godly remnant Evangelicals and the oppressive 'form-of-religion-but-denying-the-power-thereof' Orthodox was the extent and geographic distribution of their worldly power.  Seeing my people doing to others what I had labelled persecution when done to us was a shock not easily recovered from, but one which would do a world of good to a very great number of people.

And which, let us add, I should dearly love to personally administer.

Feb 13, 2015

Chapel Hill

On Tuesday this week, an atheist gunned down three Muslims in Chapel Hill.

Apparently I must begin by saying that I disapprove of murder; I would go so far as to say that I disapprove of nearly all violence, with about the only exception being in defense against the violent.  This was a despicable act.

But let us note, in passing, the rank hypocrisy of a society in which three Muslims can go on a mass-murder spree in France while screaming vengeance for the prophet and a veritable tidal wave of commentary will deny any connection to religion, but if just one of a depressingly long list of 'Murkan parking disputes gone bad features an atheist as a perpetrator, then it's crisis time for the entire movement.  Where is your Aslan, now?  Oh that's right, retweeting Dawkins-bashing, 'atheists have no grounds for morality'-regurgitating pablum that wanks itself silly with delight that atheism is a faith, and its adherents no more righteous than those of any other.

Go fuck yourself, Lion-boy.  On a somewhat lighter note, you also have articles like: Moderate atheists claim anti-theist Chapel Hill killer took The God Delusion ‘out of context.  Which ... I do think this is funny, but there's two key differences: 1) atheists, moderate or otherwise, don't revere 'The God Delusion' as a Holy Book, and 2) 'The God Delusion' doesn't actually say to go kill the believers. Contrast the believers who really do revere a Holy Book, which really does say all the nasty things that their extremists get off on.

The reaction in the atheist community has been a bit mixed; you've got the aforementioned, 'People shooting people over parking spots is totally a thing (U!S!A!  U!S!A!), what on earth can you extrapolate from the minor statistical anomaly of both perpetrator and victim holding opposed minority viewpoints on religion?'  On the other end, you've got Heina relating her experience as a Muslim/ex-Muslim having to disavow terrorist attacks to her own similarities with Hicks and PZ advising us to own it, reiterating his familiar point that atheist must go beyond disbelief in one particular truth-claim

Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, was Hemant's reaction, which I might summarize as 'Yeah, this isn't our fault, but since he was one of ours we need to nut up, condemn violence, and stand in solidarity with a grieving community.'

As for myself, my first instinct is the vociferous denial that this had aught to do with me; my second instinct is to mistrust the first--reflexive defense of tribe and self against any criticism removes the corrective mechanism for actual errors.  I accept that a healthy contempt and criticism of bad ideas can bleed over into animus towards and dehumanization of those that hold them.  If this contributed to Hick's actions, then that is deeply regrettable.  But on current evidence, the incident looks like the power to take a life corrupted an ammosexual who was only incidentally atheistic.  We all have moments where we get so mad we can't see straight.  The difference between the "normals" and the gun-fondlers is that the latter are vastly more likely to be in possession of human killing devices when that occurs.

This verdict is defeasible by further evidence.  For now, though, I condemn this senseless and despicable act, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims.

Feb 4, 2015

The Thousand Natural Shocks That Movements Are Heir To

It’s long been known that “an identity is something only women or African-Americans or perhaps LGBT people have. White men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal.”  Sadly, I have failed my fellow white men, and my ideas about this thing I’ve been talking about--political correctness, language policing, the idea and abuse of limiting expression so as not to cause offense--still bear the stamp of their lowly origin.

I touched on this last time, but to put the thing succinctly, if I took kindly to people martyring the weak to justify their strictures on my pleasures and free expression, I’d have stayed a Southern Baptist.

So I’m biased.  I’ve watched a collective in-group bend over, spread wide its hairy asscheeks, and devour its own head in a Cartman-esque inversion of an ouroboros.  I’ve seen Grand Loyalty Oath Crusades play out in real time.  Maybe that makes me twitchy, jumping at shadows and reimagining the cannibalistic terrors of the Rankinid Inquisition in every mild critique.  But maybe living through that shit taught me to recognize its nascent form in other contexts.

Let’s never imagine I’m against the goals of the Left.  Quite the contrary, it does the soul good to challenge and upend unjust power structures, to restore dignity to victims, to end discrimination and the casual bigotry embedded in language and humor.  But the movement that does these things is still a movement, susceptible to the thousand natural shocks that movements are heir to.  Intent isn’t any more magical for tribes than for individuals.  I work for a major humanitarian organization, and I assure you that righteous goals are no inoculation against the everyday headaches and inefficiencies of any large institution.  Social movements are no different.

Every principle will bend back round and up its own ass if you take it far enough--every movement can go overboard, and I want us to remember that.  The LGBTQAIPS acronym slipped into self-parody somewhere between the sixth letter and the ninth, and I want us to acknowledge that.  I want us to shoot for the balance point of justice, and not for the far end of the scales to balance out the injustice on the other side.  I want us to remember that any set of norms or rules runs the danger of becoming more about the rules themselves than about the goals they sought to achieve, no matter how noble those goals are.  I want us to regard ostentatious virtue as automatically suspect, if not actually unvirtuous.  I want us to think long and hard about any attempt to police tribal boundaries (especially by excommunication), because such attempts are all too often a pretext for advancing one’s own tribal position.  I want us to have the common sense to recall that people being people, they will--consciously or not--tweak, bend, short-circuit, and otherwise game any system of rewards and punishments, no matter what behavior it actually meant to encourage.

So that’s what’s wrong, and that’s what I want, and that’s what Chait ought to have written, if he had had a more compelling insight into the problem and more useful life experiences with which to analogize.  Exceptions abound, and there’s no clear line or any method other than to be intelligent.  I wish I had a more satisfying ending than “Our standards of goodness lend themselves to dick-measuring, rewards-gaming, and status-seeking just as much as anyone else’s,” but since we seem to have forgotten that, it’ll have to do.

Feb 1, 2015

Chait and Savage, round 2

Revolutions devour their own.  I mentioned last time “the irresistible temptation to be holier than your peers--to lay the costliest and most splendid sacrifice on the altar of tribal allegiance.”  One of the quickest ways to do that is to pick some established figure and denounce their holiness as less splendid than your own.  Emperor, many a trve kvlt metaller informs us, sold out--and by this sign we understand that the speaker has not.  Al Mohler, claims at least one conservative commentator, has been “pandering to the homosexual lobby,” and this serves to declare that speaker would never.  The OBU professor who so gently warned us of the sexual content in a book, thundered my classmates, should have selected a book without any such content.  Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford retained too many mental cobwebs of pre-Ingsoc thought, according to those who profited by denouncing them, and so conspired with Eurasia.

Here’s where the tricky part comes in: you can criticize someone without doing this.  You can also do this with accurate criticisms.  Many people accuse their critics of this to deflect accurate criticism, and all those who do it reply that they are “just” concerned about policing the going virtue paradigm, and certainly not the pecking order and boundaries of the in-group.  There can even be a revolution that’s basically in the right, yet is still subject to this tendency.  There is no bright line.  It’s a smell test, and your mileage may vary, but I’m catching a whiff of something--perhaps in the subtle distinction between ‘inadvertently says things alleged to be bigoted’ and ‘is a bigot’.

Mileage varies at least in part by one’s own tribal affiliations.  I jump down people’s throats for repeating hackneyed apologetical slurs re: atheists, and after critical self-evaluation I don’t think I’m status-jockeying.  But I’m not nearly so prepared to recognize--or object to--a genuine slur against trans folk or bisexuals, much less to extrapolate remarks into a pattern of bigotry.  For example, he got criticized for saying: “Many adult gays and lesbians identified as bi for a few shining moments during our adolescences and coming-out processes.  … This can lead adult gays and lesbians—myself included—to doubt the professed sexual identities of bisexual teenagers. … a bi-identified 36-year-old is likelier to be bisexual than a bi-identified 16-year-old, and I resent being asked to pretend not to know it.”

To me, this is uncontroversial.  Dan himself did it.  My brother did it.  They’re hardly alone--of all the under-20’s who I ever knew to be bi, exactly 1 (of those I kept up with) still identifies as such.  He’s not even talking about actual bi people, he’s talking about the fact that a sizeable chunk of young gay people lie about being bi.  I don’t fucking get it--but then, I’m not bi, maybe this is … a thing?  Or sounds too much like a thing for comfort?  But not one of the people I’ve heard mention this has arsed themselves to explain it, they all just link to it: ‘an enlightened person such as I shouldn’t even have to explain to an enlightened person such as you what’s wrong with it--I mean, you are enlightened, aren’t you?’

So with Dan, sometimes I’m genuinely unsure what point his critics are trying to make; sometimes, he really does say quite mean things (for instance fat-shaming); sometimes … well, let’s put it this way.  If you’re going to storm out of a lecture over “the t-word slur”, does your non-trans friend then get to use “the i-slur” in front of whatever other trans-folk might be in the room without utterly demolishing your case?

Look, I realize: I’ve got a lot of baggage on this one.  Language policing was a part of my complete breakfast of emotional-bleeding-over-into-physical abuse.  I’ve been slapped for saying “dang”, and the attitudes had so thoroughly osmosed into me that I literally cried for half an hour the first time I ever said ‘crap’ in public--before I was even scolded.  Language policing is a trigger for me, and I don’t mean that as a cutesy reductio, I mean it literally--my first response to anyone who tells me what I can’t say is blind rage and a stream of profanity.  Outside the actual abuse, in the church culture I grew up with, such games were nothing more than ways to out-holy your peers.  Offense has since become an integral value to me.  As a metalhead, I listen to offensive music; as first a liberal in a conservative school and later an atheist in a religious world, my personal ideology and criticisms of majority delusion have been slammed as offensive more times than I can count--the “precious widdle fee-fees” defense invoked upon an Everest of bullshit, and never by those who could offer a coherent rejoinder.  ‘You’re not allowed to say that!’ is a contraction of “You’re right and I’m helpless to dispute it!”

And Dan, it strikes me, probably feels the same way.  The times he grew up in, and the battles he’s fought, have made him a pugnacious, self-confident fighter unapologetically asserting his own view against the sex-negative, homophobic consensus that dismissed him as offensive.  That’s what you have to be if you’re going to fight that battle.  … and that’s maybe not the bestest place from which to evaluate whether you’ve actually hurt someone you shouldn’t have.

Which brings us back to the smell test.  And the question of what exactly I want, which I’ll tackle next time.