Wednesday, January 6, 2016

More Thoughts About Dress Codes and Headscarves

Last week I wrote about sartorial liberty and the controversy in the West over Islamic dress codes for women (my TEDx talk will be posted soon.) My position - that dress codes are inherently illiberal, especially when applied only to a specific segment of the population or community, regardless of whether the source is secular or religious - remains the same. But, faced with the perverse idea of “World Hijab Day,” in which non-Muslim women are encouraged to wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with Muslim women, there’s one particular question which bears asking and needs honest answers. 

The New York Times has published one of its “Room for Debate” series on the topic, and I unsurprisingly agree with those who argue that hijab is a conservative and superficial symbol of religion and identity, rather than a true indicator of someone’s faith, and that women who choose not to wear the hijab need just as much support (if not more,) than those who do. World Hijab Day legitimizes one particular conservative religious practice and expression over others and risks disempowering, delegitimizing, and undermining the religious credibility and identity of those Muslim women who choose not to practice hijab. 

I believe that those in the most danger deserve the most support. This brings me to my question: is it more dangerous for a Muslim woman living in a conservative Islamic country or community to resist hijab or for a Muslim woman in a liberal society to wear it? I think it’s obvious that the former is much more dangerous, especially when taken on a global scale. Reports of fathers and brothers killing their own daughters, sisters, and wives because of perceived affronts to family honor by even appearing to be insufficiently modest are heard all too often, to say nothing of harsh official punishments in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reports of women in hijab being harassed on the streets in Western cities are also heard, but with nothing like the scale or nature of the threat as the former. It seems obvious that a woman going without a headscarf in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many Muslim communities in the West would run a greater risk of harassment (if not arrest, corporal, or even capital punishment,) than a Muslim woman living in a liberal, secular country who decides to wear one. 

This begs a larger question: which is a bigger problem in the world today - Islamism or “Islamophobia” (although I prefer Maajid Nawaz’s more accurate and helpful phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry.”) I tend to think the former is a bigger problem than the latter. It isn’t just that women, gays, and religious minorities are safer and better off in liberal democracies than they are in Islamist countries - Muslims themselves enjoy more rights and freedoms in secular countries than they do in theocratic ones. Anti-Muslim bigotry in the West is indeed a problem and it needs to be fought against. But Muslims in liberal societies tend to be legally far freer to worship, dress, and live as they choose than Muslims in theocratic societies.  So who is really in peril and more in need of support and solidarity: the woman who dares to wear a headscarf in New York or the woman who dares to uncover her hair in Tehran?

The only World Hijab Day that would approach fairness or justice would be one in which Muslim women who do choose hijab remove it for a day in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who choose not to follow a dress code. Short of that, a day in which Muslim men are encouraged to try a headscarf for a day to support their sisters who wear one - either by choice or by force - might make for an interesting change. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Freeing the Nipple, Banning the Burqa: On Sartorial Liberty

I have consistently seen that, when faced with the twin demons of Islamist theocracy and anti-Muslim bigotry, some of my friends on the left will side with the former rather than being accused of the latter.

I recently had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of giving a TEDx talk in Jersey City on the topic of dress codes and sartorial freedom (I'll post a video as soon as its up.) One dress code I discussed was hijab, or the varied practice across many Muslim communities of either requiring or recommending that women cover themselves up in some particular way. Recently, in one of the usual shows of supposed solidarity that some on the left like to make after a terrorist attack over a not-unfounded fear of a backlash against Muslims, some non-Muslim women are donning hijab. This is a very misguided way to show support for Muslims who face bigotry because by implicitly endorsing the hijab as a symbol of Islam and Muslim womanhood it undermines the claims of validity and piety of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves and, more importantly, those who are fighting for their right not to cover themselves in places where it is mandatory. Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote an excellent op-Ed piece in the Washington Post about this a week ago and today the always-incisive Maajid Nawaz wrote a column for the Daily Beast on the same subject.

Some might assume that someone as passionate about dressing up as I am would be in favor of dress codes that call for greater formality, but the main point of my talk was that the clothes a person wears are robbed of all meaning and power and neutered as personal expression if they become mandatory - a uniform. As it is, I'm against all dress odes but the narrowest ones regarding safety, just as I'm against all speech codes apart from those proscribing actual immediate threats.

When I say all dress codes I mean all dress codes, no matter what the authority. I think a government telling you what to wear is just as wrong as a holy book telling you what to wear. I think a cop telling women they shouldn't dress like sluts in order not to get raped (the inspiration for the "Slutwalk" marches,) is no more offensive than an Imam telling a girl that modesty is her duty so that she might be protected from the supposedly uncontrollable lusts of men.

As a secularist, freedom of religion is very important to me, as is the freedom to criticize religion. This position, which may seem contradictory is central to the very idea of secularism, and it's been highlighted nowhere more clearly in recent days than in the controversy over Islamic clothing in Western societies. In the most recent Canadian election, the question of women wearing the full face covering at citizenship ceremonies became a campaign issue. Raheel Raza wrote a passionate article in the Huffington Post explaining that by allowing or defending the burqa or niqab, well-meaning liberals were in fact defending a backward, repressive, and extremist version of their religion and validating a cultural practice they themselves see as illegitimate and non-obligatory. Salman Rushdie has in the past talked about the generations of Muslim women in his Kashmiri family who would have fought and died rather than be forced to wear a veil.

Where I disagree with Raza is in her call to ban the burqa and niqab in Canada. I think this is a big mistake. Aside from the fact that it may further alienate Muslims and play into a grievance narrative about Muslims being persecuted in the West, I don't believe that its the government's place to tell people what they can and can't wear. It's a clear violation of freedom of expression, which I believe should be nearly absolute. (I should note that in some instances and places, such as government buildings, hospitals, and schools, prohibiting face coverings and masks make perfect sense to me as security measures.)

This isn't to say that I approve of the burqa or even the hijab. Quite the opposite. I find them unfair, ugly, and inherently sexist, simply because girls are made to wear them but their brothers aren't. A rule applied unevenly to women and men should be the very definition of sexism, to say nothing of the fact that the reason often given for such dress codes is the notion of modesty being a woman's duty. Making female sexual purity a focal point of morality, aloingside poisonous notions of familial honor is terrible. Reducing a woman's piety to her outward performance of chastity is a shallow spirituality. And any god who would demand that half his creation cover themselves would necessarily be a small and petty one. This doesn't strike me as the basis for any noble or grand theology.

Western feminists don't seem to be lining up to denounce Islamic dress codes imposed on women as vocally as they denounce other authorities telling them that they should or shouldn't dress a certain way. They seem uncharacteristically quiet when their sisters in countries with mandatory modesty laws bravely resist them - at risk of great, even corporal, punishment - and ask for solidarity. I can only suppose that this is out of some kind of cultural sensitivity - that it is not their place to criticize another culture. This sort of relativism is a betrayal of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and universal human solidarity. And it does little good to remain silent on the question of dress codes in a secular society - especially in cases when they overwhelmingly affect the lives of women. The most perverse pretzel-like twisting of this accommodation to extremism is the sight of self-proclaimed feminists donning hijab in "solidarity."

An argument can be made that items like the hijab are important symbols of identity to some Muslim women. Aside from the implication that women who don't cover themselves or who resist dress codes aren't somehow authentically Muslim, the argument that an item of clothing is central to someone's cultural identity doesn't automatically make it a good thing. If it did, we'd be much more accepting of idiots with Confederate Battle Flag patches on their jean jackets blathering on about their heritage and Southern way of life. And, to follow on from an earlier point, dress codes (rather than just dress,) tend to express group identity rather than individual identity, and if the expression is mandatory it cease to be an expression of personal value (i.e. if someone or some authority is telling you have no choice in the matter that also means you have no voice in the matter.) As a result, the hijab is only a meaningful personal expression of piety, identity, spirituality, religion, and community, in circumstances where there is no law or pressure on the woman wearing it, whether from her family, community, state, or clergy.

Again, I don't think banning burqas or hijab is the answer to sexist religious dress codes any more than banning the rebel flag is the answer to racism. I think that Muslim women in the west should be completely free to follow any dress codes their conscience demands of them (provided it is of their free choice and not coerced or pressures,) but people should recognize that that same freedom means that their expression and practice must be open to examination and criticism, and a frank discussion of the value of a female-only religious dress code shouldn't be dismissed, derailed, or silenced by bogus charges of racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia. We must defend peoples freedom to wear what they choose while exercising our freedom to speak out against all dress codes.

For those of us who don't follow religious or clerically-demanded dress codes, we should lead by example, not by making laws limiting how others can dress and express their religion, but by demonstrating to young generations of women of all cultures that a woman's value and worth isn't tied to her wardrobe, and that the right to dress as one chooses is universally empowering, whether you choose to follow a dress code or not.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Katy Perry and the Pleasures of Pop

It’s rare that something I read on the internet that isn’t about ISIS - the world’s worst straight edge youth crew – riles me up, but Heather Havrilesky’s hatchet-wielding “takedown” of Katy Perry in New York Magazine did. When people first learn that I unashamedly love Katy Perry, they often assume that as a 30-something straight man my fondness is purely carnal. There is that, of course, (and why would being one of the most beautiful American celebrities since Elizabeth Taylor be such a bad trait in a pop star?) but I genuinely enjoy her music and I like the personality (or persona,) that she shows the public. What’s more, the reasons I like Katy Perry seem to be exactly the things Havrilesky, and others I’ve spoken with, dislike – or in this case hate – about her.

Havrilesky writes with the venom of someone who, having walked in on Ms. Perry in bed with her lover, has decided to write about her while fuming at a desk in the same room while the adulterers finish. She describes Katy Perry as “the very essence of reassuring, non-threatening stagnancy. She encapsulates that remaining, silent majority (It never goes away! Don't fool yourselves!) that doesn't like to be challenged at all, ever, for any reason — not by women, not by music, not by the weather, not by anything.” Havrilesky then goes on to compare her – to say unfavorably would be an understatement – with Beyonce and Taylor Swift, then presumes to know the mind of Perry by speculating that her endorsement of Hilary Clinton “suggests nothing more than the fact that Katy Perry would prefer to sound like someone who stands for something, even though she isn't that person and never has been.”

Shelly once called poets the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. It would seem that these days some people expect our pop stars to take on that role. It is precisely the fact that Katy Perry’s music, persona, and polished performances lack the pretension of Lady Gaga’s quasi-glam art school costume party, Beyonce’s bravely standing in front of the word feminist, Miley Cyrus’s Terry Richardson shock pop, or Nicki Minaj’s deeply empowering meditations on the sound of two butt cheeks clapping, that makes her so appealling. Not because we, her fans, are too lowbrow and afraid of being challenged, but because some people can find intellectual interest and fulfillment beyond the Billboard charts.

Katy Perry doesn’t take herself too seriously, and that seems to bug the hell out of people like Havrilesky, who demand that pop stars be more than pop stars. But why should our pop music necessarily do more than give us pleasure? Why isn't the pleasure of pop and end in itself? Does Havrilesky lament the fact that “Mr. Postman” wasn’t a righteous denunciation of the United States Postal System? Or that “Surfin’ Bird” didn’t do enough to raise awareness of the plight of marine fowl? Perhaps “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a far slyer dig at the patriarchy than I give it credit for. She might point to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” as a right-on feminist anthem, were it not for the fact that it was originally written and sung by Otis Redding.

Yes, Katy Perry’s music is bubblegum. Delicious bubblegum. And while it's true that a diet of nothing but bubblegum isn’t good, the occasional chew, blow, and pop can give people a lot of pleasure and happiness. Unfortunately this kind of pleasure unadulterated by guilt and a vague semblance of making a point (or at least pretending to,) is what some people can’t stand.

Havrilesky claims that Katy Perry doesn’t have a look, and then immediately complains that her look never changes (which would imply that there is, after all, a look in the first place.) For some reason, the idea of consistency baffles and outrages Havrilesky. Katy Perry’s aesthetic palette is rich even if it isn’t eclectic (I would argue that comparing Perry’s stylish Moschino ads to her tongue-in-cheek goofy videos shows quite a nice range of styles for someone often dressed by other people.) It would seem that Havrilesky would prefer a pop star whose costume changes are more radical, like David Bowie or The Beatles or maybe even Duke Ellington’s unfortunate end-of-life Dashikis and ponytail. One would have to assume that Havrilesky thinks the Ramones leather jackets and ripped jeans wasn't a "look" because it never changed. Her sartorial-aesthetic sense is calibrated only as a motion detector.

Katy Perry has one of the rarest qualities in today’s often-sanctimonious celebrities: a sense of humor. She’s unafraid to look silly, make fun of herself, and unapologetically enjoy it. For some reason, a woman having fun on her own terms and getting pleasure out of goofing off isn’t a sufficient “message” for a pop star to have. If you want to see Katy Perry at her best, watch the video for “Birthday,” a hidden camera piece in which she makes herself absurd with makeup and prostheses and masquerades as various awful birthday entertainers (including an elderly stripper and a Jewish comedian,) at actual birthday parties. It’s a perfect, puckish example of Katy Perry’s joyous, life-affirming embrace of pleasure without pretense. Picture Kanye West or Beyonce or Taylor Swift making themselves deliberately unattractive and ridiculous in a video.

One final point. Havrilesky makes a very big deal out of the song “Firework,” somehow operating under the misapprehension that “firework” is never a singular word:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag — not because you're polluting the oceans, but because you "want to start again," presumably by being recycled? So does Katy Perry. But then she remembers that she's a firework. Singular. Think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of person who can sing the word firework like it's an actual word, over and over and over again, without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.
I’d like you to think for a minute about what it takes to be the kind of writer who doesn’t even bother to open the Oxford English Dictionary to find five different definitions of the singular word firework, the most relevant being “A single piece of pyrotechnic apparatus,” and then publishes an article with a snide and condescending self-assured paragraph about it without feeling the faintest hint of self-loathing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Hebdossards vs. Trudeauvians:" in which I defend the several recently-murdered bullies of the powerful establishment organ Charlie Hebdo who liked to unfairly pick on the 1.5 billion powerless members of the world’s second largest religion.

I promise I'll go back to talking about dandyish things some day, but this is one of those things I just had to write for myself. 

There’s a very unpleasant “conversation” happening right now, made all the more distressing not only because the people taking the side opposing mine are people I’ve long respected but because some of us feel that the principle at stake should be fairly uncontroversial, especially for writers, artists, and intellectuals: when someone is murdered for drawing, writing, or creating something, no matter how crude or offensive, their killers are to be unequivocally condemned, and the content of their work is irrelevant to the matter. Instead, you have what Salman Rushdie has called the “But Brigade,” those people who say “I believe in free speech but...” (listen to the chilling audio recording of the attack on the recent Copenhagen freedom of speech panel discussion - one of the panelists is lamenting this very phenomenon when the shots sound out, chairs scrape across the floor, and people hit the ground in fear.)

When it comes to the massacre of cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the small left wing satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, one would hope that the murderers be condemned, the murdered be respected, and the survivors commended for not caving in to terror. Instead, a subsection of the world’s literary elite has decided to spread the calumny that Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, bringing with it the unmistakable suggestion that the staff of the magazine somehow had it coming to them or that they were asking for it. In recent weeks, close friends and family members, most of whom don’t read French and have never lived in France - some of whom have never even been to France - have confidently asserted to me that Charlie Hebdo was racist and unfairly insulting to Muslims, having acquired this second-hand opinion seemingly on faith and a couple of cartoons shown to them without any context. I’ll say again that the cartoons themselves, their content, even their intention, are irrelevant in the most important sense: reacting to art and words, however insulting, with murder and violence is disproportionate, to put it at its mildest.

I don’t want to belabor the points that have unfortunately been necessary for so many people to make: that the editorial meeting that was attacked was about Charlie Hebdo’s participation in an upcoming anti-racism event, that the founder of SOS Racisme has passionately defended Charlie Hebdo as an anti-racist publication, that the magazine had a multi-ethnic staff, that Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of very vulgar French satire, particularly targeting the clergy and religious power. Le Monde, determined to find out whether Charlie Hebdo was indeed obsessed with insulting Muslims or even mocking the religion of Islam went through more than 500 of the magazine’s covers from the past 10 years and found that only seven had anything to do with Islam or the Prophet Mohammed (including times when it was mentioned along with other religions.) Accusations that it inordinately targeted Muslims with its satire are completely, verifiably unfounded. The website has been set up with the unfortunate and tedious mission of explaining the more questionable-looking cartoons to those of us who really have no context for them.

The distinction of questionable-looking is an important one. Cartoons are usually single images. Nuance is not their forte, so they rely particularly heavily on context for the reader’s understanding. As a result, sometimes even the cartoons which seem the most vulgar and offensive at first glance can require a sophisticated understanding of the issues at hand to appreciate the point being made. This is perhaps why so many people, seeing a drawing of a black woman as a monkey or the Nigerian “Chibok Girls” abducted by Boko Haram portrayed as greedy welfare mothers jumped to the immediate conclusion that these are flat-out racist caricatures.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper, albeit a deliberately crude and vulgar one, so when they feature a cartoon it’s related to something happening in the news (in fact, whenever Charlie Hebdo caricatured Mohammed, it was because there was some news story related to Islamic fundamentalism or, especially, the political and censorious issues around depicting the prophet.) In the above two instances, Charlie Hebdo was referring ironically to positions taken by the French far-right wing. The cartoonists responsible shouldn’t be blamed too harshly for not working harder to make sure that the relatively few non-French readers of their tiny magazine got the joke about French domestic politics.

Imagine for a moment that someone who speaks no English is flipping through American television and comes across a scene from South Park. Perhaps it’s the one where Native Americans are rubbing slit-eyed half-naked Chinese men on blankets in order to infect South Park’s white population with SARS in order to steal their land. Perhaps its the scene where Kyle gets a “Negroplasty” because he thinks being black will make him a better basketball player. Perhaps it’s the episode in which Cartman, in full Nazi uniform, leads an army of Christian Mel Gibson fans through town chanting anti-Jewish slogans. Perhaps its the episode in which Randy, having guessed the word “Nigger” as an answer on Wheel of Fortune, feels unfairly discriminated against now that everyone thinks of him as “that nigger guy.” In the first case, the viewer needs to know the history of the campaign to infect Native Americans with smallpox in order to steal their land as well as the media hysteria, at the time, over SARS spreading from China. In the second case, the viewer needs to understand common stereotypes about black peoples’ athletic ability as well as controversies about plastic surgery and identity. In the third case, the viewer needs to understand Mel Gibson’s own history as well as the controversy over anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ. In the final case, the viewer needs to be familiar with recent controversies around the use of what’s euphemistically and Voldemortishly called “The N-Word,” and appreciate the risible cluelessness of Randy, who’s too stupid to understand that being called “that nigger guy,” will never be as bad as being called “nigger.”

Without understanding American history, current political cultural context and, perhaps most importantly, the sort of gross and vulgar irony used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their satire, an unfamiliar viewer might well assume that South Park is a deeply racist show (or misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, Anti-Catholic, Anti-Muslim, or any number of other things,) and I’m sure some humorless people do sourly condemn it for being all of these things and they may have some point. The case of Charlie Hebdo is no different. We don’t need to look far to find another American example of a comedian being righteously pilloried as a racist on the assumption that context is irrelevant. Stephen Colbert, famous for playing an arch-conservative idiot character on television, was the target of an outraged Twitter campaign aimed at having him fired after used a blatantly racist imitation of a Chinese man to make an ironic point about the racism inherent in the Washington Redskin’s name and logo. Again, Charlie Hebdo is no different from this.

What I found particularly distressing is the number of creative, progressive, liberal-leaning people who have subscribed, almost sight-unseen, to the idea that Charlie Hebdo was, if not racist, at least unfairly mean to France’s Muslim minority. Among the many people taking the same side as the Pope and other religious fundamentalists about what is, essentially, an argument about blasphemy and the appropriate response to it, are famous writers including Peter Carey, whose sons I used to babysit. I wrote to Peter to express my disappointment at his anti-Charlie Hebdo protest. It seems to me that Peter and his colleagues who boycotted the PEN America gala have bigger problems with the PEN organization in general, but that isn’t what their statements or protest letter said. They chose to protest Charlie Hebdo’s receipt of a freedom of speech award specifically, citing France’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Maghrebi attitudes. Peter went on the call the whole French nation arrogant, and I’ve recently been assured by several people (who, again, have spent little, if any, time in France,) that the French are very racist. Indeed, I haven’t heard so much gleeful gang-up pile-on French-bashing since the Bush administration, and nobody has yet explained to me how calling the entire French nation and people arrogant and racist is any different from calling all Mexicans lazy or all Arabs misogynistic.

The latest buzz-terms, rapidly becoming as cringe-making, cliched, and overused as “problematic,” “intersectionality,” and “self-empowered,” are “punching up” and “punching down.” I’m personally unaware of any hard and fast rules for satire. Indeed I’d think that comedy and satire can’t flourish if shackled with rules and responsibilities, whether from censorious bodies or governments or simply the icy chill of respectability, taste, or consensus. But for the hell of it let’s say that this is true - that the only appropriate target of satire is the powerful, and that to mock the powerless or disenfranchised, as in the case of French Muslims, is never acceptable.

Again, we can look a the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, particularly the ones featuring the Prophet Mohammed (which, again, were only featured in the magazine when there was some topical newsworthy reason.) These cartoons were never mocking individual Muslims but a symbol of religious authority. In fact, many of the cartoons painted a rather sympathetic picture of the Prophet (more sympathetic than the one in the Koran or his biographies, it seems to me,) showing him depressed that so many of his followers were becoming violent, humorless, and censorious assholes, or him being beheaded by ISIS under suspicion of being an infidel - suggesting the belief, commonly asserted by moderate Muslims around the world, that ISIS is at odds with the true Islam of the Prophet. Now, if some Muslims happen to have their own identities and self-respect so tied up with a long-dead man who spoke to angels, led armies and raiding parties, was barely tolerant of most Christians and didn’t seem too fond of Jews in particular, and had highly dubious sexual and marital morals (I’m talking about Mohammed, in case you thought I was back on Mel Gibson,) to the point where even seeing an image of him wounds them to the core of their very being, then I daresay that’s a personal problem of theirs and a very big problem indeed, especially when it has consequences for the rest of us who don’t believe the extraordinary claims of the Prophet. But Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Mohammed were categorically not personal attacks on individual Muslims or incitements to anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hatred, and if people chose to take them as such that’s entirely their fault (and gross misunderstanding,) and not the cartoonists. As it happens, the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo didn’t do it because Charlie Hebdo was racist or “punching down,” or unfairly maligning Muslims. They did it to avenge the perceived honor of their Prophet, as they stated over and over again. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t attacked for being racist. It was attacked for blaspheming.

A little more on this punching up/punching down nonsense and the allegations that Charlie Hebdo was attacking the powerless. Charlie Hebdo consistently satirized the intrusion of religion - any religion - into politics, and globally Islam is absolutely a political force to be reckoned with. The idea that a small struggling French satirical newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 on its best week was some sort of establishment organ using a privileged and powerful position to unfairly insult the icon of a religion that boasts 1.5 billion followers, 49 countries in which it claims a majority (a few of which control great oil wealth and influence,) is the powerful insulting the powerless would be laughable were it not such a perverse look in the funhouse mirror. The fact that there is a measurable power hierarchy between men holding guns and those holding pens should go without saying. Most importantly, the self-righteous are and should be, a prime target of satire, and nobody is more self-righteous than those who believe they know the mind and will of god, especially those who seek to impose this tyranny on others. Anyone who claims such authority or knowledge deserves to have his nose tweaked. That these are deeply-held beliefs is less than irrelevant: the more deeply-held a belief is the more it should be questioned, criticized, and yes, even mocked and satirized. The size or power of an impermeably self-righteous group doesn’t make ridiculing their beliefs any less fair. Where were the authors lining up to cry foul at mockery of the Mormons or Scientologists? Their religions are far more marginalized and powerless globally than Muslims, and nobody bats an eyelid when their patently absurd beliefs are questioned or ridiculed.

In their letter the anti-PEN protesters mention the idea of “expression that violates the acceptable.” The sight of writers suggesting that some language is “acceptable” and others isn’t is very troubling, and it only raises more questions: is the line clear cut and immovable? Is it different depending on the speaker? On the listener? If a man says “nigger” in a forest and nobody is around to hear it is he still racist? What if only nobody black is around to hear it? Most importantly, who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable - the ancient and noble job of censor? Peter Carey? I hope not Gary Trudeau. The fact is, only I get to decide what language is and isn’t acceptable to me, and although I do get to disagree with or ignore what I don’t like, I don’t have the right to hurt the people who say it or even to stop them from saying it at all.

The authors who signed the PEN letter have a difficult question to answer: how is supporting Charlie Hebdo different from supporting Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence in 1989? The question is difficult to answer without an appeal to taste or literary sophistication, especially because the Satanic Verses was arguably far more critical of the foundations of Islam, suggesting that the Koran might have been man-made rather than the revealed word of god and that the prophet was a human man, and just as capable of being venal and power-hungry (of course most of those who condemned and attacked Rushdie hadn’t read the book and if they had any objection to its content it was usually because they’d been told about some version of the subplot in which the women in a brothel take on the names and personalities of the prophet’s wives - as is so often the case, sex, honor, and female chastity and control are great motivators of the self-righteous.) The forgiving prophet of Charlie Hebdo is a sweetheart by comparison.

Many of the issues of offense, blasphemy, hate speech, and satire are rooted in matters of taste whether people always realize it or not: not so much the taste of the creator, but the taste of the individual reader or viewer, which is something the creator is powerless to control or account for directly. A friend, challenging me, asked me why rape jokes are wrong. I replied that I wouldn’t call any joke on the topic of rape was categorically “wrong,” especially not without hearing it first, and that I could think of a few by the likes of Sara Silverman and Louis C.K. that were hilarious. Ok, he conceded, but what about rape jokes like Danny Tosh’s - why were those rape jokes wrong? I believe that they’re not “wrong” but not funny, ironic, or clever, meaning that they lacked the property that makes something a joke in the first place - without which it just becomes a statement or, at worst, a harangue. My friend insisted that the reason a rape “joke” like Tosh’s is “wrong,” is because it might threaten and traumatize someone who hears it, possibly because they themselves have survived sexual assault.

How an audience will respond is something every creative person considers. Tosh probably knew that most of his audience was stupid enough to laugh at anything he says, were in fact dumb enough to mistake a harangue for a joke provided it was offensive and crude enough. But Danny Tosh, like everybody else, has no direct control over how his audience will actually feel about anything. Such emotional and intellectual control is as impossible as it is undesirable, for it reduces the beautiful complexity of the relationship between creator and audience to one of manipulation. Because of the impossibility of completely accounting for an audience’s reaction, something as subjective as personal offense can’t be the precedent for “acceptable” language or expression, because there’s no way to predict or account for it - and to attempt to do so would inevitably lead to self-censorship and prior restraint. Anyone can potentially be offended by anything. They might even be traumatized or profoundly, deeply upset by something someone says. But that possibility can’t be the standard for governing people’s expression.

What does this have to do with Charlie Hebdo? The point is that anyone can simply declare that they find anything offensive -that alone says nothing about the value of the thing in question, and it says nothing about what should be done about the thing. At a security-heavy PEN event which I attended at NYU a few weeks ago, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic said that he finds the French worship of soccer players offensive. He thinks it is vulgar and he wishes his children didn’t have to see posters and magazine covers praising the unimportant lives and feats of these athletes everywhere they look in public. But his solution is to not buy the magazines with soccer players on the cover, to not go to matches or watch them on TV, to ignore commentary on soccer, toss out the sports section of his newspaper, and spend his time on what he thinks are more worthy pursuits. The comments drew laughs, as they were no doubt intended to, but they made an important point: in a free society the audience can choose how to respond just as the creator can choose what to create, but violence is never an option when it comes to expressing ideas and opinions.

People have pointed to French hypocrisy in the case of the arrest of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne on hate speech charges for expressing something that could have been construed as sympathizing with the terrorists who attacked Cahrlie Hebdo. Why is Charlie Hebdo’s satire of the Prophet Mohammed protected free speech and not Dieudonne’s tasteless tweets? I agree completely. It’s a scandal and hypocrisy of the first water and a major blow to the credibility of the French government that they have “hate speech” laws on the books at all - including the laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and the Hitler salute (France has a particularly uneasy national conscience when it comes to its own anti-Semitism going back through Vichy, the Dreyfuss affair, and the Catholic Church’s heresy crusades and now seemingly resurgent in some extremist Muslim circles throughout the country) - and still claim to believe in freedom of speech. People may be interested to learn that Charlie Hebdo - who, just to be clear, are not even remotely in bed with the French government or representative of the entire French nation but are dirty old Soixante-Huitards with a very liberal attitude - also agree that the prosecution of Dieudonne for hate speech was unjust. At the discussion at NYU, the two members of Charlie Hebdo’s staff present unequivocally supported Dieudonne’s right to free speech, spoke out against hate speech laws, and righty said that the antidote to offensive, hateful, or incorrect speech is more speech, not censorship, or, in the case of their friends and colleagues, murder. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Second Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders

As is usual on the internet, some of the responses I received to my last post seemed to be missing my point, so I’d like to clarify a few things.

Jumping to Conclusions

One of the most dismaying things I saw online was the number of people castigating the media (always inexplicably seen as some monolithic entity,) for not declaring this to be a hate crime before the police had finished (or barely even begun,) their investigation. In my post I said that there seems to be some evidence that it might have been a hate crime, and that whether it was or not it should be an opportunity for atheists to reflect on the possibility that someone who identifies as an atheist did this and what that might mean for the rest of us. But the scorn people poured on news outlets for being careful and saying that they weren’t yet completely sure of the motive was scandalous. Many people seemed to be of the opinion that if a white man who claimed to hate religion kills three Muslims there can only be one conclusion. This is a terrible precedent. If we were to assume that every time a Muslim is attacked by a non-Muslim it’s because of their religion that would be a complete abandonment of fair-mindedness, and just as ridiculous as assuming that every time a Christian is attacked it’s because of their religion or any time a gay person is attacked it’s because they’re gay. It’s perfectly understandable for individuals to have those suspicions, but to demand that our news outlets report on motives they can’t possibly yet be certain of is awful. People also claimed a double-standard, saying that if a Muslim man had killed three atheist students the media wouldn’t have hesitated to call him a terrorist and declare religious hatred to be the motive. That’s just not true. Mainstream news outlets (with some exceptions, of course,) are usually very circumspect about these things because if they jump the gun and end up being wrong they have egg on their face and lose credibility. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings the media did exactly the same thing they’re doing now: they wrote that there was some suspicion that the suspects may be radicalized Muslims but that it was too soon to confirm. Even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks western media was impressively fair-minded, reporting that some at the scene had said that the suspects had shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and that based on previous threats and attacks there was reason to believe the magazine was targeted due to their criticism of Islam, but they didn’t confirm it until more facts were in. In the case of Chapel Hill, most of the media did the same thing: reporting that some people (including the victims' father,) suspect it might be a hate crime based on the victims' religion and some of the suspect's previous writings and that the police are investigating that possibility, but that so far the police say that most of the evidence is pointing toward it being the result of an unhinged person involved in a dispute over a parking space.

It just so happens that I have a perfect example of when this kind of speculation goes wrong: the 2005 massacre of the Armanious family in Jersey City, which I took as the topic of my Journalism School Master’s project. The Armanious family - a husband, wife, and two daughters of 8 and 15 years old - were found brutally stabbed to death in their home. The family were Coptic Christians, members of an Egyptian sect of Christianity and one of the oldest surviving churches in the world. Jersey City has a large population of Egyptian immigrants, about equally divided between Copts and Muslims. That’s not the case in Egypt, however, where the Copts are a long-suffering minority, often the target of persecution and religious violence. Many Copts moved to New Jersey to escape that life. For some, the murder of a peaceful family of four Coptic Christians could only lead to one conclusion: the persecution their people had faced living under a Muslim majority in Egypt had followed them to America. The leaders of some Coptic organizations immediately denounced the murders as the obvious acts of Islamic extremists (the Coptic Pope, Shenouda, urged people not to jump to conclusions, which is good advice in general, but probably pragmatic, too, because he knows that the continued existence and relative safety of the Coptic community in Egypt depends on their being rather meek and deferential to the Muslim majority.) Rumors flew that the father, Hossam Armanious, had been warned and threatened for speaking against Islam in the past, that the family had been slaughtered like Halal livestock, that Christian cross tattoos on the families arms had been stabbed and gouged and cut out. The relatively comfortable co-existence between Copts and Muslims in Jersey City (and America at large,) was in serious jeopardy. At the family’s emotional funeral procession through the streets of Jersey City, an Imam and Muslim delegation who had shown up to offer their condolences was attacked by angry mourners.

As it turns out, the family was found to have been murdered by a drug dealer named Edward McDonald, who had rented an apartment from them and seems to have been under the impression that they had lots of money in their home. He broke in to the house wearing a mask and tied the family up. It is believed that while he was searching for valuables, the youngest daughter broke free and saw him with his mask off. His cover blown, he brutally murdered the whole family. Religion had nothing to do with it.

Atheism had nothing to do with it.

I heard this from several people - the killer’s atheism is entirely irrelevant. After all, atheism is just the lack of a belief in god, it isn’t a positive philosophy or moral system at all. Discovering that someone is an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about what they do believe, only what they don’t believe. I had thought I’d been pretty clear that I agree with this in my last post, but apparently people either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood me. There is a distinction between passive atheism (simply not believing in a god,) and active anti-theism (a dislike or hatred of religion, in which camp I absolutely place myself,) and this distinction is not being made or acknowledged. Religion, and particularly its intrusion in public life, is something that I believe needs to be resisted with argument, debate, and reason. There’s no reason why a thoroughly unbalanced person might not take his own hatred of religion to violent extremes. His lack of belief in god doesn’t technically have anything to do with it, but his proactive hatred of religion might. I was somewhat surprised to see that many of the things he’d written on his Facebook page are things I might have said (albeit more eloquently, I hope,) in my own angrier moments. Nothing on his Facebook page advocated violence against religious people, but there were plenty of frustrated and angry denunciations of faith which were not illogical and with which I can more or less agree.

The point I had been trying to make is that atheists would be unwise to dismiss out of hand the idea of a madman killing “in the name of” atheism. We might know that atheism means nothing but a lack of belief in a deity, but for plenty of other people who don’t know or care about that distinction, atheists might as well be a religious group of their own, or at least some kind of watered-down religious interest group. The fact that atheist and secularist political groups have become more politically active, vocal, and organized in the past several years is bound to fuel those kinds of misapprehensions. The point is that even if this has nothing to do with the victims’ religion or the killer’s hatred of religion, these days an accusation or correlation is enough to convict people in the court of public opinion, including by association. Whatever the result of the investigation, there will be people who remain unswervingly convinced that it was a hate crime committed by a self-identified atheist and therefore it must be because of his atheism, and that is going to make things very tough for the rest of us who hate, mock, ridicule, and insult religion without resorting to violence. And it may well encourage the people who cry “Islamophobia,” and want to make criticism of Islam hate speech. They’ll have an argument at hand, weak and unfounded though it may be, that there are atheist terrorists, too. We’d be stupid to ignore that. Of course even if this one lunatic did commit these acts because of a hatred of Islam specifically or religion in general, it’s nothing compared to the theocratic government-sanctioned violence and intolerance in many Muslim countries, and it’s much harder to imagine American non-religious school children refusing a moment of silence for the victims as many French Muslim students were reported to have done after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. People in the West overwhelmingly condemn these horrific acts. In many parts of the world religious murderers are all too often celebrated as heroes and martyrs. My concern is that if some psychopath with a gun who happens to be an atheist slaughters people and it turns out he did it because he hates their religion, then it’s going to be much more difficult for us atheists to say with indignation (as I often have,) that we find religion just as offensive as any cartoons or novels but you don’t see us attacking random believers.

Atheism is not a religion

It is obviously true that atheism is not a religion and I never said anything even remotely suggesting that it was, and yet people seemed to think that that’s what I was implying when I talked about the possibility of someone killing in the name of atheism. Reference was made to Stalin, as though I’d repeated the canard about atheism being responsible for many atrocities of the 20th century. I never said any such thing. The charge of Hitler’s atheism is easily refuted by reference to his speeches, the slogans and language of the Reich, the teutonic mythology of National Socialism, and international fascism’s mutual sympathy and alliance with the Catholic Church. Stalin is a slightly tougher refutation but only slightly. It’s true that the ex-seminarian extensively persecuted religious people and advocated atheism. But rather than any deep atheist conviction this was almost certainly another all-too-typical extension of Stalin’s paranoid and cruel repression of any ideology which might threaten his power or the state’s official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin was ultimately a pragmatist, if a misguided and brutal one. Kruschev was the first to suggest after Stalin’s death that Soviet Communism and the cult of personality had simply become a religion of its own, with just as much dogma, unwavering faith, and heresy hunts as any other.

Which brings me to my final question and concern. If Stalin made state communism into something so closely resembling a religion, is there a danger that “organized” atheism as it exists today in the West could be vulnerable to such perversions? There are now atheist, secularist, and humanist meetings, clubs, support groups, lobbies, events, specialty magazines, conventions, and a huge market for books and films on related topics, not to mention a thriving online “community.” I’ve participated in all this to varying degrees at different times and I’ve overall seen it as a positive development in the resistance to theocracy, religious power, and faith-based thinking. But the “organized” part of it has always made me slightly uncomfortable. And while I think that most atheists are probably relatively free-thinking and individualistic and broadly skeptical, I was always sure to meet a few people who were a little too sure of their own convictions, people for whom doubt wasn’t a major factor in their worldview, people who, rather than debate, were content to self-satisfyingly quote Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris as incontrovertible authorities rather than intellectual thinkers to engage and possibly disagree with on some things. In fact, I was even more uncomfortable with those who wanted to saddle atheism with some of the outward trappings of religion - that seemed a distinctly creepy impulse to me. People who wanted cringeworthy “un-baptism ceremonies,” or regular sunday non-belief services, or people who wanted atheists to have a table at Mayor Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast were always missing the point in my eyes. I wanted to avoid everything about religion and I certainly didn’t want atheists to start treating their lack of belief as something doctrinaire or remotely resembling a religion. I didn't want atheism to have the same special status as religious groups, I didn't want religious groups to have special status of any kind.

But I’m beginning to wonder if when any group goes from being merely speculative or philosophical to being actively political it runs the risk of extremism. I think that people of no faith and their religious allies who support secularism absolutely do need to be more political. In fact, I don’t think we should shy away and maybe even encourage more “extreme” and unapologetic ideas in our discourse, and I don’t think we should play nice or water down our own convictions, opinions, or beliefs. But I also think we need to at least consider the troubling possibility that some people who sympathize with our goals may have radically different ideas about methods. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

First Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders and "Atheist Extremism."

Three young, attractive, and by all accounts bright, loving, and wonderful students were shot dead last night in Chapel Hill. They were all Muslims. Many online are complaining that that fact isn’t yet mentioned in the headline of the New York Times article on the tragedy. In their defense, the New York Times is probably just doing an ultra-diligent covering-their-ass fact-checking thing where they reserve judgement on the crime’s motive until the police have announced it. If they were to make religion the focus of the article and then for some reason turn out to be wrong they’d be in even more trouble. But for the rest of us, there seems to be compelling evidence that the victims’ religion wasn’t a mere coincidence. My immediate thought was that it was probably a right-wing Christian nut (not very fair-minded of me, perhaps, but I was basing my prejudice on previous cases like that of Anders Breivik.) Then my heart sank when I read that the killer, based on his Facebook postings, appears to be a staunch atheist, even an anti-theist like myself: someone who not only doesn’t believe in god but thinks that religion is overwhelmingly a negative force in the world.

I remember on September 11th my mother said that the first thing that went through her head was “I hope it was a white guy like Timothy McVeigh who did this.” I’ve also heard Muslims say that when news of a violent terrorist act breaks they fervently hope that it doesn’t turn out to have been committed by Muslims. They’re tired of evil people committing acts in the name of their shared faith and afraid of a backlash. Aside from the fact that the backlash (in the United States, at least,) was usually limited to a few redneck idiots shooting at convenience stores or calling people racist names, I’d always found this thinking strange and oddly solipsistic - why would the first thing you think of in the face of horror and atrocity be about you and people like you? I confess, that’s the way I’m feeling right now. And I feel slightly embarrassed that some of my first thoughts were immediately about what this might mean for atheists.

The police are currently saying that the triple murder might have been over a dispute about a parking space. Maybe that’s true. But even if it is, an atheist murdering three Muslims is not going to be dismissed so easily. This will likely be considered in the court of public opinion to have been a hate crime even if it is found to technically not be. Whatever the final case, the very possibility of an atheist killing people over faith is something we need to consider.

The thought of an atheist murdering three innocent people because of their religion sickens me to the core of my being. I’ve always been quick to point out that atheists weren’t blowing up mosques or churches or temples or shrines in the name of atheism - what a laughable idea! - other religionists were committing those crimes in the name of their competing faith claims. But now there’s a chance that one of us has and it’s probably going to be flung in our face and held against us for a long time to come. Many polls show that atheists are already one of the most mistrusted (if not the most mistrusted,) groups in the United States. People are far more likely to vote for a Muslim or a gay person than an atheist. Although we’ve been vocal of late, we’ve usually been on our best behavior and not committed atrocities. Leave it to the Christian fanatic to attack Gurdwaras (betraying his ignorance along the way by conflating Sikhs and Muslims.) Leave it to the lone wolf Islamic radical to behead his elderly Christian co-worker. Atheists use words, reason, and argument to prove their point. Possibly not this time.

Some people have defensively pointed out that atheists can’t be considered ideologically similar in the same way that religionists can - we don’t have codified dogmas, clergy, or creeds. Someone said that collectively blaming atheists for the act of one atheist is like blaming the act of one person who doesn’t like baseball on everyone who doesn’t like baseball. This might on the face of it be logically true, but there are some of us who are committed and active secularists, who push back on the influence of religion in the public sphere - and that’s not a shared ideological commitment to be taken lightly. It appears that the killer may have identified as one of us, and that’s something we need to reckon with.

I’ve received criticism for saying that the people who need to combat Islamic extremism are, first and foremost, Muslims. Radicalization is something which arises all too often within their communities so they need to take some responsibility in stopping it. Some people have ironically asked for all atheists to condemn the atrocity last night, in the same way that people ask Muslim leaders to condemn any act of Islamic terrorism. We atheists should, and we will. Richard Dawkins already has. I think it’s important that those of us who are involved in the fight against theocracy, unreason, and superstition, speak up and say that a killer of innocent people in no way speaks for the rest of us. I happen to be at the less friendly and respectful end of the atheist spectrum. I think religion is wicked, and I think it causes far more harm than it does good in the world. I also think that at this time in history Islam is the most problematic religion on the planet and to pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant. I’ll even admit that when I read about the horrors committed by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS I think it would be a rather good (possibly even quite satisfying,) act to kill one of their fighter-rapists. But killing innocent people because of their beliefs is the opposite of secularism. It’s what religions have done throughout their history and its one of the reasons I’ve proudly called myself an atheist: we don’t do that. This time one of us may have. And we need to face that and show that a killer - atheist though he may be - who murders innocents for their beliefs is not the face of unbelief. He would be a perfect example of the unreasoning mind and a traitor to the secular ideals of the enlightenment.

Recently I responded to the fatuous argument from religious apologists who, referring to extremist Muslim groups say, “you wouldn’t claim that the KKK represents all Christians, would you?” Of course not. But just because the KKK wasn’t representative of mainstream or majority Christianity doesn’t mean they weren’t a Christian organization. They “self-identified” as Christians, and they justified their actions with fairly straightforward interpretations of scripture. In the same way, those who say ISIS don’t represent all Muslims are missing the point. Of course they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an Islamic group. They justify their acts with rather uncomplicated interpretations of scripture and doctrine. Who gets to decide that they aren’t true Muslims? I now find myself in an unexpected position. I’ve laughed off charges of atheist “fundamentalism” and atheist “extremism” in the past. Maybe we can’t afford to do that anymore. Even if this does turn out to be a one-off and incredibly rare example of an atheist taking their hatred of religion to a violent extreme, it goes to show that atheists, secularists, and anti-theists like myself have no reason to expect to be immune from extremist tendencies. It’s something we need to accept, confront, and fight just as strongly as we fight the violent excesses of religious radicals.

My sincerest condolences are for the families of the three victims, whatever the killer’s motive. When innocents are hurt, humanity itself suffers. There's no question that #muslimlivesmatter just as much as anybody else's.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wonder Theaters New York Times Feature

In case you missed it, my first New York Times feature was published on the front page of the Metro Section on Sunday, January 15th. The article, about the Loew's Wonder Theaters, involved a lot of research and reporting (75% of which, including my favorite historical episodes, sadly did not make it into the final piece.) The online version includes some beautiful 360-degree hi-definition panoramic photographs of the theater interiors. Read it below: