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Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer

Posted by Skeptigator on August 4, 2008

As I watched from the sidelines as the whole PZ/Cracker thing played out*, I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar the whole event was to an auto accident. You know how you sit at a red light next to a recent fender bender trying to recreate the accident to figure out whose fault it was? I’ve been doing it with the PZ/Cracker farce. Is the idea of “transubstantiation” ridiculous? Yes, on soooo many levels. Was PZ justified in criticizing not only the idea but also the way over-the-top actions of the particular Catholic church? Yea, sure. Was the call to have people send in a wafer to be desecrated over-the-top and unnecessary? Over-the-top? yes. Unnecessary, hmmm… now that’s an interesting question.

“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Is it necessary sometimes to do unnecessarily outrageous things to point out injustice or simply the ridiculous. If it wasn’t necessary it’s safe to say that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s whole shtick wouldn’t be on the air. But one has to ask what defines the “appropriate unnecessary” action.

Let’s take some actions from the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s as an example. Why not simply write about racist treatment instead of boycotting buses? Clearly boycotting bus systems is far more effective than simple speeches and angry editorials (that would likely go unpublished). Why boycotting? Why not disabling buses, slashing tires, molotov cocktails or physically barring bus drivers from getting on the bus? Would those not achieve the same purpose? (Do me a favor and bare with the comparison. I don’t want to draw too many parallels with the Civil Rights Movement and the “oppression of atheists”. Certainly they are of the same kind but certainly not nearly the same degree, if you catch my drift.)

The question-at-hand/purpose of the boycotts was that some “more than necessary” action was required to truly raise awareness to an injustice. A speech or letter to the editor would have been all that was necessary. But that was not what was required since it would not contribute to an actual solution any time soon, at least. So the question remains, “When faced with an injustice and the “all that’s necessary” action won’t be enough, what should the form of the “unnecessary” action be?”.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s answer to this question was Non-Violence.

Nonviolence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of physical violence. As such, nonviolence is an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression and armed struggle against it. Practitioners of nonviolence may use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, and targeted communication via mass media.

And with that definition in hand we can see the practical results of this policy. Fire-bombing a bus, no doubt effective as an “awarness-raiser”, would not probably qualify as a non-violent. Therefore when looking at the activities of the 1960’s you will see, lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and peaceful protests. All consistent with a non-violent philosophy.

Of course, looking back is 20/20, we can say that this is a very effective form of protest. At the time there were serious doubts as to it’s effectiveness. Without that doubt the Black Panthers would never have had the appeal they did.

“We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why is the philosophy, if it can be called such, of non-violence effective? The key to it’s effectiveness lies in some of the very criticism that the strategy received, this from Black Panther George Jackson,

“The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary.”

Isn’t it interesting to ask the question, whose philosophy/strategy/tactics survived today? Sorry George but you painted the entire U.S. population with the statements and actions of it’s most vocal members. And most importantly you grossly underestimated American (and human) compassion.

It took years but the American conscience couldn’t bare the sight of firehoses being aimed at peaceful protesters, armed guardsmen being necessary so that children could get an education, they couldn’t take the virulent, hateful rhetoric of so many politicians, they couldn’t take the images of bloodied men and women with bitemarks from police dogs, seemingly daily footage of riot gear-wearing police and guardsmen attacking men and women in the streets. Those protesters wore down the just-as-human xenophobia, ignorance and hate by showing the capacity of a fellow human being’s ability to suffer. America as a whole had to admit, “These are just ordinary folks trying to do and have ordinary things.”

The genius, if you can call it that, of the non-violent method is that it provides a third-way. What happens with violence (and violent reactions) is that it too often leads to further escalation and more insidiously creates a clear division, a line in the sand, if you will. Us vs. Them. Therefore, the question of justification can not be a valid one in this context. Is Israel justified in defending itself against mortar shell attacks from Palestine? Were the Negroes of the Civil Rights era justified in resisting oppression by violent means? Are half the bar fights around the world justified? Justification is a component but something else needs to temper that justification otherwise we won’t get anywhere as a society.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ok, I know, how are the two related? I’ll answer with a question. Is PZ Myers justified in his response to the admitted ridiculousness of this particular episode and “transubstantiation” in general? Ok, fine, how about these questions, “Is it effective?” or even better “Does it serve the intended purpose?” And the big question, “Is this “awareness raising” akin to a lunch counter sit-in or slashing the tires of a bus?”

Until I hit upon this analogy I have been torn, asking myself if I don’t like the whole affair simply because “it’s divisive” but then kicking myself because sometimes divisiveness can’t be avoided. Or I would say, “I sure wish that would have played out differently” but then I look at the actions of both parties realizing that there was little possibility of it happening in any different way. Literally, I said to myself, “I wish there was a third way” and that’s when the word-association triggered in my mind.

Neither the actions of the Church can be changed nor the actions of the student who absconded with wafer Jesus. However, by making the request and stating his intentions to desecrate the cracker, he was using the verbal equivalent of “violent” action or reaction. His “violent” reaction left little to no room for a third-way. It simply upped the level of rhetoric (escalation of violence) and drew a very clear line in the sand and said you are either “for” transubstantiation or you are “against” the established traditions and have to reject all forms of religion and become an atheist. The distinctions obviously were not stated in such a way but the idea remains.

“The only bad thing about burning your bridges behind you is that the world is round” – Unknown

You couldn’t gain support from the believing public who accept that the churches reaction was way over-the-top because in order to do so they would have to stand by a man who would be actively opposing everything you stood for (including some very minor things that you didn’t). The whole episode failed to build even a wafer-thin bridge** between two opposing viewpoints. Each side simply dug in a little deeper.

I bring up the whole affair not to encourage PZ Cracker trolls to visit this site but to point out that this little skirmish is indicative of poor tactics in general on the part of atheists, agnostics, secularists or whatever flavor you brand yourself. We need to build those bridges with the religious on those issues where we hold common ground. We need to where down the public consciousness to the idea that these atheists aren’t trying to tear anything down but simply trying to be treated like anyone else.

We need to continue to have stories where a member of the Armed Service, Jeremy Hall, who simply tried to opt out of a prayer and was threatened for his troubles, after all, he is just trying to serve his country in the best way he can. We need more public high school students, like Matthew LaClair,  who want to just go to class without being told they are going to hell.

So the question remains, do you throw the molotov cocktail through the bus window and feel justified? Or do you boycott the bus knowing you will be effective?


* To those who don’t follow such things, essentially a Catholic student took a Catholic communion wafer to his seat where he attempted to show a non-Catholic friend. He was subsequently assaulted (or nearly so) by Catholic laity and then he ran out of the sanctuary. This prompted the Catholic church to post guards at the next service.

PZ Myers, fairly well-known science blogger, wrote about the story and called to have someone send him a communion cracker so that he could desecrate it “properly”.

The ensuing drama, death threats and all-around juvenile behavior centered around not the churches over-reaction but actually on PZ Myers call to have someone “steal” a cracker.

** Oh no he didn’t!

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FreeThought in the 20th Century

Posted by Skeptigator on June 9, 2008

This is the 3rd in a series of posts exploring the Past, Present and Future of FreeThought. In this installment I would like to discuss how poorly FreeThought faired in the early parts of the 20th century but I promise to end on a high note. The primary focus will be from the turn of the century to the about the 70’s.

Comstock Laws, Contraception and Catholics

To understand the problems that eventually overwhelmed FreeThought in the first half of the 20th century we must first start with the enacting of the Comstock Laws of 1870’s. These laws essentially allowed the federal government the right to inspect and seize anything moving through the U.S. Postal service deemed “obscene” as determined by the local postmaster. Those things that were deemed obscene were anything from “diatribes against marriage to advertisements for veneral disease remedies”. Ingersoll himself spoke against the government being in the business of censoring and ultimately defining what was obscene.

Until the early 20th century the Catholic church held very little sway and was still considered a suspicious minority religion. However despite their small numbers the Catholic church actively began to crusade against public (and therefore secular and godless) education and contraception. Margaret Sanger, the inventor of the term birth control and it’s biggest crusader was ultimately arrested in New York City at the prompting of the local Catholic clergy. While opposition of contraception didn’t seem to win the Catholics any Protestant fans their eventual embrace of some of the most virulent, anti-communism would finally assuage the mainstream Protestant fears.

Bolshevism and the Red Scare

As the dawn of the Great War approached many freethinkers were imprisoned for sedition (such as Eugene Debs, a socialist, vocal opponent of the America’s entry into the Great War and an Indiana State Representative). After the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution created a backlash against those that were perceived as godless and therefore un-American. Mainstream Protestantism began to link bolshevism and eventually communism with evolution much like the Catholic church linked communism and atheism. While true the Bolsheviks ostensibly embraced atheism it didn’t prevent them from replacing the State as the new religion. This of course didn’t stop the link from being made.

During the decades preceding the second World War, 2 Catholic personalities emerged on the national stage, Charles Coughlin and Fulton Sheen. Charles Coughlin was,

… dubbed “the father of hate radio” by a recent biographer, was destined to rise no higher in the church than the priesthood: his early populist message of Christian justice for the working man turned in the thirties into an anti-New Deal, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic – as well as anticommunist – platform. Coughlin’s diatribes were tolerated by Vatican officials and encouraged by his bishop for much of the thirties, but he was finally muzzled by an embarrassed hierarchy after Pearl Harbor.

Fulton Sheen on the other hand was an unblemished darling of the church hierarchy. His Catholic Hour radio show was broadcast by 106 radio stations throughout the 1940’s to eventually become a television star in the 1950’s with his show, Life is Worth Living, reach an estimated 5.5 million viewers. There is no doubt Sheen was virulently anticommunist as Coughlin even going so far as to advocate for spying on school teachers who might celebrate May Day (a socialist holiday, and one shared by labor unions). A close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, that bastion of free speech, Sheen would often get his personal friends appointed to what would ultimately become the FBI.

What does all of this mean for freethought in the first half of the 20th century? Nothing good. Freethinkers were more often labeled socialist (which many were) or communists. In general, an unpleasant period in freethought history.

Let the good times roll

I will end this section on a high note before I delve into my opinions on the Future of FreeThought. A number of important court cases would be decided in the mid-century. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Illinois (1948) would all but prevent public funds (even indirectly) from being used for religious instruction. The McCollum case would directly challenge “released time” when students would be released during the school day to receive religious instruction from local religious groups. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which desegregated schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962) found that even non-denominational school prayer was unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade (1973) which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Within the political arena a Catholic would be elected president and give a speech clearly stating that, “I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me”. A clear difference that was lost on Mitt Romney. Of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would finally pass The Congress.

I won’t detail the activities of secularist involved in the struggle for civil rights, such as, Andrew Goodman Michael Schwerner and James Chaney (who were eventually killed by racist shitbags), Stanley Levison and W.E.B. Du Bois. And modern day feminism, such as, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. I will simply assume you know all about it 😉

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