Thursday, December 4, 2014

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 

Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes


Recently, people have been writing an awful lot about what men are wearing. Not the usual red carpet reportage, but the sort of debate once reserved for Jayne Mansfield’s décolletage. In this case, the controversy is over two shirts (of very different styles,) worn by two men (both of whom work the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, or STEM) and whether their sartorial choices are examples of institutional sexism (particularly in the male-dominated STEM fields.)

The first shirt was a plain gray cotton t-shirt seen on the torso of Facebook CEO and life-size Lego figurine Mark Zuckerberg. Asked at a press conference why he always wore the same plain outfit, Mr. Zuckerberg replied: “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” This may seem like typical Silicon Valley productivity-worshipping egotism to most people, but New York Magazine’s fashion site The Cut published a blog titled “Zuckerberg Explains His Gray T-Shirts, Sounds Pretty Sexist” in which Alison P. Davis, perhaps nervous that an editor would discover that she hadn’t yet been outraged by anything that day, does some sexism exegesis and concludes: “Of course, male CEOs are far too focused on changing the world or building the next Big App to care about something as “silly” or “frivolous” as dressing professionally — they’ll just leave that to Marissa Mayer.” The comments section of the article shows that most readers saw this as a clear case of outrage overreach, considering that Mr. Zuckerberg said nothing about gender at all, and if anything it revealed more about the author’s own ideas on gender roles and the relative vanity of men and women after she crowbarred open the lines in order to not only read between them but insert her own prejudices. Some feminists winced at the article, saying that people should avoid leaps of logic and knee-jerk accusations of misogyny lest the movement be caricatured as a gang of eggshell-skinned puritans examining every statement with a sexism decoder ring.

I was offended by Mr. Zuckerberg’s statement, too, because it revealed a deep-seated prejudice against a small but gorgeous minority group: dandies (and their female counterparts.) As the co-author (with photographer Rose Callahan,) of I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman and the co-founder of the Secret Empire suiting company, I take umbrage like snuff at the suggestion that paying attention to what you wear is necessarily superficial, frivolous, or inconsequential. As Lord Illingworth in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance says, “People nowadays are so absolutely superficial that they don’t understand the philosophy of the superficial.” Mr. Zuckerberg’s anti-dandyism bias is one tentacle of the insidious “normcore” pseudo-trend, exemplified by The Gap’s stultifying “Dress Normal” ad campaign. These are microagressions that scuff the shoe and chill the soul.

Shirt number two was a short-sleeve black button down with a large repeating print of scantily-clad buxom women with guns, and it was worn by Dr. Matt Taylor on the occasion of the Rosetta team of the European Space Agency landing a probe on a comet 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth. The shirt, worn during a television interview, was blasted as a sexist “microagression” and cited as a prime example of the macho atmosphere that discourages young women from seeking careers in STEM. Dr. Taylor was soon at the center of an online firestorm that distracted from the scientific achievement and resulted in a humiliating and tearful public act of contrition on his part.

Some suggested that anybody discouraged from studying science by something as inconsequential as a novelty shirt probably wasn’t cut out for a career in the sciences anyway. Feminists responded that this was merely one example of a pervasive sexist culture in the sciences. The opposition asked why women don’t run in fear from art history or English literature because of odalisques or Lolita. The feminists replied, archly, that men were getting a taste of their own medicine now that people were scrutinizing and criticizing their appearance, too. Their critics asked, arch-archly, if they were suggesting that Dr. Taylor had been “asking for it,” because of what he was wearing?

One could continue adding arches to this arcade, but there were other points, chiefly that it wasn’t the “appropriate” thing to wear for the occasion. Some asked why his colleagues (including several women,) hadn’t said anything to stop him. This slightly more subtle argument has more to do with occasion than intent: “don’t wear a pin-up shirt to your rocket science interview, it isn’t appropriate - this literally isn’t rocket science.” Dr. Taylor’s ersatz defenders said that it obviously wasn’t his intention to offend anybody and the women on his team didn’t seem to mind. Feminists argued that this just proved that sexism is so ingrained that an obviously offensive shirt wasn’t seen as such by the team, including women. Casual sexism was their watchword.

As in the case of Mr. Zuckerberg’s words, I found Dr. Taylor’s shirt mildly upsetting, but the “casual” bothered me far more than the “sexism.” A man who just helped achieve a scientific marvel wore that on the big day? If a presumably brilliant person’s idea of the perfect celebratory outfit is a nudie-lady bowling shirt, slightly more dignified than a piano-key necktie without rising to the same level of kitsch, we may have crossed the casual-wear Rubicon. But the pro-Taylor camp had a more interesting point than it knew when it said that he had a right to dress however he wanted and it was nobody’s business to tell him otherwise: this is a matter of free speech.

It has become axiomatic to the point of cliché to say “I express myself in how I dress,” but there is truth to it (although, to extend the speech metaphor, unless you’re designing and making your own clothing you’re expressing yourself by quoting others.) Clothing choices are generally protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Exceptions might be made, as in the case of incitement to violence (a swastika t-shirt is completely legal in public, one reading “Kill the Jews” might have a harder time in court,) but for the most part we can wear what we want. And we live in a time and place of unprecedented sartorial egalitarianism: women wear pants, men occasionally wear dresses, and female “topless rights” advocates continually insist on reminding everyone that they’re legally allowed to be just as obnoxious as the sweaty men who walk around in public bare-chested.

So why does the average Western person’s sartorial spectrum begin with Mormon and end with refugee? Some feminists online recently lionized a male Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year; when nobody commented on it, he concluded that he’d proven a double standard of appearance. As far as I can see, what he really proved was that men’s clothes have gotten so boring that you can’t tell them apart. If he’d worn a different, exciting, thoughtful outfit each day, people would be commenting on it. This summer President Obama departed from tradition and wore a light-colored suit while addressing the nation about ISIS. He was promptly pilloried by pundits who argued that his attire did not reflect the gravity of his message. Again, the important point was missed by most: that suit was an awful Ahmedinejad taupe, the color of the drop ceiling of a strip-mall MRI office. Kudos to the President for trying something different, but it was an awful suit, and it looked shabby and un-Presidential no matter the talking points.

Which brings us back to “appropriateness.” If clothing is protected First Amendment speech, then it follows that an abridgment of sartorial rights is censorship. In other words: dress codes are speech codes. Naturally, private institutions have some control over their dress codes: a restaurant can refuse a topless rights activist of any gender, a church can ask that women cover their tantalizing shoulders, a school can insist on a uniform to keep students focused.

When it comes to dress codes (and speech in general, for that matter,) I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I object to banning the headscarf for the same reason I object to making it mandatory: in both cases it’s an authority telling someone how to dress, a government in the first place and a deity (or his cronies,) in the second. I do appreciate some exceptions - it seems right to me that full-face coverings shouldn’t be permitted in government buildings for security reasons (and frankly, that strictest of dress codes, the Burqa, is the apotheosis of everything I’m against.) Ideally, our permissive and ostensibly equal-opportunity sartorial culture should inspire people to experiment, to take the opportunity afforded by freedom to clothe themselves with some personal panache and a modicum of intellect. Instead, most people are trend-chasers and sartorial agnostics, the sweat-panted and flip-flopped multitudes who consider ease a greater virtue than style.

Perhaps it was the stricter, pre-Woodstock, pre-JFK, pre-Silicon Valley dress codes which allowed dandies and eccentrics to so magnificently push and bend the box they were put in. Maybe dress codes are the convent’s narrow walls, the scanty plot of ground where they paradoxically find freedom. When I interviewed the men in my book I asked each one if he would dress the way he does if everyone else dressed that way. About half of them were excited at the thought of more people dressing up, but the other half confessed that they’d have to find some other way of standing apart from the crowd. One can only hope that the excremental state of dress in America will be apt fertilizer for new, bolder sartorial expression.

What needs to be refuted is Mr. Zuckerberg’s cop-out dismissal of dressing as something separate or distracting from the important things in life (like online socializing, presumably.) Clothes are important - if you opt out you might freeze to death or get arrested. Like food, they can be fun when approached with passion and thought. The Zuckerberg theory that seriousness and dressing well are mutually exclusive is a complete reverse of the previously accepted idea that dressing well is a sign of professionalism, self-respect, and dignity. Look at the civil rights marches of the 1960’s and you’ll see men and women deliberately dressed their best, even when being attacked by dogs or hit by high-powered hoses. For black Americans fighting for their human rights, nice clothes were a powerful symbol of dignity, a repudiation of the dehumanization their ancestors endured as chattel - naked livestock at auction.

One of the dandies in my book, Dr. Andre Churchwell, tells a story about his father Robert Churchwell, the first black reporter on the Nashville Banner. Although he was covering the civil rights beat he wasn’t allowed a desk at the paper’s segregated offices and had to work from home. But each morning he still put on his Brooks Brothers suit and tie, even if he wasn’t leaving the house. He was a professional, and that’s how his children learned about the power of dressing well. Nowadays people may scoff at style as a superficial affectation, and insist that it’s wrong to judge people by how they dress. But dress, like religion and philosophy and unlike race and gender, is a personal choice, and for people like Robert Churchwell it was anything but superficial; it was a way of insisting that they be taken seriously as people who care enough about themselves to put effort and intellect into every aspect of life no matter how mundane.

Should we judge Dr. Taylor by how he’s dressed? Or should we be hypocrites like the dreadlocked hippy who screams, “don’t judge me,” one minute and calls someone a “suit,” the next? At one point it may have surprised people to see that the ESA doesn’t have a more “professional” dress code, but people didn’t even notice until something as gaudy as Dr. Taylor’s shirt assaulted their eyeballs. We take it for granted that scientists in our time wouldn’t wear old-fashioned clichés like lab coats and neckties. In fact, Dr. Taylor’s shirt may have been an example, like NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”, of scientists trying to show the public that they’re not a bunch of stuffy nerds.
“Hey,” they seem to say, “We’re just like you!”

“No you’re not!” I shout back, “You’re rocket scientists and you just put a probe on a comet! This is the feat of a lifetime. You could be wearing gold tuxedos right now. Why are you dressed for a barbecue?”

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Militant" Atheists Aren't Militant Enough

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 


“Militant” Atheists Aren’t Militant Enough
My life among the nonbelievers of the “new atheism.”

Thanks to the rise of ISIS, one of the most savage religious groups of the modern era, the so-called “new atheists” are back in the news and, once again, they’re being criticized for their stridency, their intolerance, and their militancy. But if anything, atheists have toned their message down far too much in the past few years (certainly since the death of Christopher Hitchens, who spectacularly threw the “willing to compromise” curve of the atheist movement way off,) and the only thing more troubling than the fact that it took something as extreme as the Islamic State to bring atheists back out swinging is the fact that all too many of them still seem reluctant to join the fight.

I was raised in a very secular household in the heart of Greenwich Village. My parents are both liberal college professors. My mother’s rather Anglicized Indian family was half-Hindu, half-Sikh, and she had attended Church of England boarding schools in India. My father came from a nominally Methodist family from Texas, but his subsequent career as a clinical psychoanalyst seems to have superseded all other forms of mumbo-jumbo. The variety of my religious experience growing up began and ended at friends’ Bar Mitzvahs, and the only time I ever felt jealous for not having a faith was when I saw the congratulatory stuffed envelopes from grandmothers. Of course, the most cursory reflection on a deity who was anti-bacon but pro-circumcision easily disabused me of any envy I felt at not having been one of God’s chosen people.

Religion had so little impact on my life that atheism seemed like the natural way of things, the obvious default position. In September 2001, during my first week of classes in my freshman year at NYU, when religious hatred and violence was visited upon my hometown in cataclysmic fashion, simply not believing was no longer enough. I soon realized that battle had been joined whether I wanted it or not, I and everyone I knew was fair game for religious violence, and the only right thing to do was to push back. My unlikely year-long stint as a clerk in a gift shop at a Catholic Church brought me into contact with priests and true-believer parishioners alike and what I saw overwhelmingly pointed to a lot of otherwise kind and caring people (and some genuine rotters,) embracing ignorance, superstition, tribalism, hatred, and the most arbitrary and capricious moral system imaginable. My parents had read bible stories to me alongside world mythology, but now I turned to the original scriptures with a critical eye for the first time and found - whether in the Old or New Testament or the Koran - a heap of nonsense seasoned with a large helping of viciousness. I soon came to the conclusion that if such a god did exist (and we should all be very glad that there’s no evidence that he does,) it would be the moral duty of any decent person to rise up and resist such a tyrant. I concluded that the very premise of most religions - of a watchful, judgmental, guardian creator god, no matter how loving - is an insult to humanity, not least because it almost always denies humanity’s rather canny role in its creation.

Fortunately, my change from passive atheist to passionate anti-theist came at a very opportune time. In the mid-2000’s atheism was a rising force, something exciting, urgent, and important. I was an early and enthusiastic participant in what then seemed very much like a movement. I had signed copies of books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I subscribed to both Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. I watched Penn and Teller’s TV show and traded links to youtube videos with like-minded friends. I had friendly email exchanges with Hitchens, started a petition (that ultimately went nowhere,) to ask the US Government to pay for Hirsi Ali’s bodyguards, and eventually worked as a volunteer for the non-profit Science Debate, a campaign to encourage a science policy debate for that year’s presidential candidates, and was thrilled to take notes for conference calls with the likes of Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil Degrasse Tyson.

I attended book readings by Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and Austin Dacey. I blogged and spoke out in support of the Danish cartoonists. I attended every debate Christopher Hitchens had in New York City and watched with delight when he eloquently eviscerated the opposition every time - like a lion boxing a jellyfish. I went to a conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry called “Secular Society and its Enemies,” in a building overlooking the crater where the Twin Towers once stood and heard presentations by Peter Singer, Ann Druyan, and Fouad Ajami. Atheism was my intellectual awakening – as Hitch had pointed out, the argument against god was the fons et origo of all arguments worth having. 

I also spoke up about my own atheism. I didn’t go picking fights, mind you, but when my opinion was asked I didn’t lie or water things down in an attempt to avoid offense or make nice. I made a conscious decision that honesty about my own beliefs (or lack thereof,) was not only the right policy, but it meant that I respected the people I was speaking with enough to not condescend to sugarcoat my ideas. I recall arguing with one Rabbi shortly after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and saying that the men who carried out the assault on the Jewish center there were by all accounts just as pious and devout in their faith as he was in his. “How can you call these men pious when they killed and tortured people?” he kept saying, over and over again. His repeated inability to separate the concepts of piety and morality comes to mind when religious people and fellow travellers like Ben Affleck seem hell-bent on missing the point and mischaracterizing the arguments of atheists.

In one circumstance, a devout Christian co-worker at one of my jobs began talking with me about religion. I gave her my opinions unvarnished and she seemed genuinely interested. For several weeks we had a friendly debate about the matter, and it seemed like she was, for the first time in her life, genuinely questioning the faith she’d been raised in, or at least approaching it critically. Then one day she came in looking sullen. I said hello. She grunted. I asked her if everything was ok. She muttered that she’d told her brother about our conversations and he’d told her to stop talking to me about these things or he’d come in and speak to me about it himself. The threat was immodestly unveiled, and she stopped speaking to me after that, whether more for the safety of my body or her soul I’ll never know.

Some encounters were less tense. At one point, Richard Dawkins had come up with a debatably useful way of having atheists “come out of the closet:” red letter “A” pins to signify one’s philosophical stance and reference the intolerant religious branding of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The idea was that atheists would proudly wear their heresy on their sleeves (or lapel, rather.) The result was mixed. At a drugstore in midtown, a clerk pointed at my pin and said “You an Atlanta Braves fan?”
I was confused for a moment then laughed and said “Oh, no, I’m an atheist.”
He stared at me.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It means I don’t believe in god.”
He recoiled in shock, then, because the situation couldn’t possibly be as dire as he imagined, he asked: “But you believe in the Bible, right?”
“No, not really.”
He looked for all the world like I’d just sprouted a tail and spoken in tongues. He called the other clerk over and the line of cross-armed people waiting behind me fumed and tapped their toes as one.
“He says he doesn’t believe in god. Or the bible,” he informed his co-worker.
She squinted, as though her contact lenses had trouble focusing on such an unfathomable creature.
“They other people like you?” she asked.
“Yes, lots of them.” I replied.
Their eyes widened. She let out a sigh and shook her head.
“Well,” she said, “good luck.”

But the biggest test of my newfound openness about my disbelief in and dislike of religion involved my girlfriend at the time. She had been raised Catholic, and one day she mentioned to me that she still prayed every night before bed, and even included me in her prayers. I was surprised, taken aback, and a little uncomfortable. I never liked the idea of people praying for me. I’d always found it condescending and presumptuous. But I loved her very much, and I wasn’t sure if it was right of me to try to disabuse her of a faith which clearly gave her comfort and was, for the most part, genuinely benign and mild. She wasn’t any sort of fundamentalist zealot, she and I pretty much agreed politically, she’d simply never really spent much time examining or questioning her faith until she began a serious relationship with someone who took his disbelief more seriously than she seemed to take her belief. I didn’t go out of my way to change her mind, I didn’t insult her for praying or disparage her beliefs directly, but I did continue to write and talk about my own uncompromising thoughts about religion. Eventually, she told me that she’d stopped praying. My mother quipped that any girl who dated me was bound to lose faith in something, but I get the impression that she’d just decided it wasn’t necessary, and she didn’t seem any less happy, content, or ethically grounded for having stopped.

Her family was a more delicate matter. They were no more zealous or intolerant than she was, but their faith seemed more firmly rooted. One year I was invited to their beautiful home for Wigilia, a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner (I’ve never had a problem participating in the symbolic or traditional cultural rituals nominally associated with particular religions, as long as they require no false oaths or superstitious activity on my part - I thoroughly enjoy a good Diwali celebration, Seder dinner, or Christmas party.) The big news that year was that one of the cousins was bringing her new fiancé to the table for the first time, and it was clearly going to be an opportunity for the extended family to give him the once over. They subjected him to a friendly but thorough grilling, and I was glad I wasn’t in his seat. The occasion being what it was, they asked him about church - whether he currently attends, whether he’d attended as a child, whether he thought it was important. He deftly and diplomatically dealt with the questions. He admitted that he didn’t currently attend church, but then he said that he thought it was very important to raise children in a faith so that they’d have a proper moral grounding. This met with approval all around. The motion was seconded by family members, who concurred that the best, if not the only, way to ensure a moral child is to give her proper Christian instruction. I sat quietly, prepared to hold my peace, reflecting on the miracle that decent peoples’ faith in the moral standing of the Catholic church could remain so unshaken in the wake of recent revelations about the industrial scale of child rape and cover-up by members of its protected clergy.

Then, in a move to his credit, and for which I will always be very grateful, my girlfriend’s father decided to include me in the conversation, knowing full well that I was an active and vocal atheist, and aware that I might say something others disagree with. To this day I hope that my response to his question didn’t hurt his personal feelings too much, and I hope that he appreciates my candor as a sign of respect.
“Natty, did your parents take you to any sort of church or service when you were growing up?”
I was surprised at being asked, and I answered with something like a reflex:
“No, my family has never been religious and we don’t believe in anything supernatural.”

When I recount this story to people today, even non-religious people, they gasp and say that my response was the height of rudeness. I’d dismissed and insulted the beliefs of everyone at the table. I’ll admit that I surprised myself, and I still feel a little bit of that initial shock that comes with the sense of a line being suddenly crossed. But I couldn’t have given a more honest answer. Some might argue that both decorum and honesty would have been satisfied if I’d left it at the first clause, but there was a reason that wouldn’t have been enough: I’d sat silently for several minutes while most of the adults at the table had repeatedly implied that a person who wasn’t raised in the church couldn’t be morally sound. With every measure of confidence and self-assuredness they’d asserted that morality was impossible outside the context of not just any religion, but their religion specifically. I had been prepared to let this insulting and untrue concept go, but then I’d been asked about my own experience, and I’d felt obliged to give it as honestly and fully as I could.

People were a bit taken aback, and there was a pregnant silence before my girlfriend’s father deftly maneuvered the conversation elsewhere. By the end of the dinner it seemed to have been more or less forgotten, and when we broke the traditional opłatek wafers and told each other our wishes for the New Year, my girlfriend’s parents said they looked forward to seeing more of me in the future. At first, their genuine kindness made me feel a little guilty for having so abruptly punctured the consensus, but after dinner an aunt and uncle took me aside and said “are you an atheist?”
I told them I was.
“So are we, but we were always too afraid to tell anybody,” they confessed.

After that, I was very glad for what I’d said, and I tried to imagine being so afraid of one’s own family’s opprobrium as to constantly lie and hide one’s own deepest thoughts and beliefs from them, something which atheists around the world often have to do, in some places for fear of murder at the hands of their own relatives. The thing I learned that night was that when people say you shouldn’t bring up religion at the dinner table they usually mean that you shouldn’t disagree with the religious consensus, and that most moderate religious people are probably unaware of just how insulting and intolerant some of their most basic core beliefs are.

2007 was a big year for atheism. The Atheist Alliance International convention was held in Washington DC and it featured an impressive lineup: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens were all speakers, and the quartet met for drinks at Hitchens’s apartment that week to record the now-famous “Four Horsemen” video. I attended the convention, met fellow atheists from around the world, shook hands with the icons of the movement, got my books signed, and even, after handing over my bag to a bodyguard, met Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose appearance hadn’t been announced in advance for obvious security reasons. The speeches were all exciting, although to be fair the speakers couldn’t have been preaching to a more sympathetic choir, but the speech which caused the most discussion - and controversy - was Sam Harris’s.

Harris’s speech, which can be viewed on Youtube with the title “The Problem with Atheism,” immediately divided the attendees. Part of the speech was about his belief in the value of meditation and “spiritual” practice without superstition or dogma, which is the subject of his excellent new book Waking Up. That met with skepticism from many in attendance, but the really controversial part of Harris’s speech was his argument that atheism, as a non-belief, was a very strange thing to have a convention about. After all, he said, people don’t have conventions about their common lack of belief in astrology. Not only was it strange, said Harris, but it was harmful to the project of a world governed less by faith and more by reason, because it allowed peoples’ arguments about specific beliefs to be dismissed by virtue of their belonging to a particular group. Harris argued that atheists should stop calling themselves atheists, agnostics, secularists, secular humanists, or (shudder) “brights.” Instead, they should not call themselves anything, taking their lack of belief as the reasonable default, as it were, and committing themselves to advocating for reason and against bad ideas in any form. Predictably, Harris’s contention that atheists shouldn’t call themselves atheists was frustrating to many of the atheists attending the atheist convention, who were presumably feeling pretty good about being atheists at that moment. But it was one of the most important moments of the convention for me, because it illuminated the limiting edges of atheism as a movement.

At the time I was a member of the New York City Atheists. I had joined in my first burst of enthusiasm for the subject and I’ll forever be grateful that they, seeing some sort of potential in me as a young and semi-eloquent champion of the cause, asked me to be the host and moderator of their monthly meet-ups. On one Tuesday of every month, several dozen nonbelievers of different ages, races, occupations, genders, sexual orientations, and styles would meet in the back room of a Murray Hill bar. I would lead a discussion for about an hour and a half and then people would socialize. For me, the meetings were an opportunity to bring up and discuss issues which I thought were of vital interest to people opposed to religion. I soon realized that for many of the other attendees that wasn’t the point of the group.

To many people the meet-up was simply a social event, a good way to meet like-minded people. Friendships, romances, and at least one marriage that I know of, resulted from the meetings. I understood the social value of the meetings, but I had hoped they would have the potential to be more. I was dismayed to see the number of people who were content to sit around quoting Richard Dawkins and patting themselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than their religious neighbors. I soon noticed another divide among the atheists: those who had been brought up in a faith saw the group as a potential replacement for the social functions of a church, whereas those of us, like me, who had been brought up in an entirely secular environment felt no such need. I already had friends, and I was relatively competent at meeting people without recourse to first discussing all the things we didn’t believe in.

One of the common criticisms leveled at atheism, and especially the “new atheism,” is that it’s just like a religion. It seemed to me that some members of the NYCA were determined to prove this true. People suggested “un-baptisms” and I cringed. People wanted some kind of Sunday meeting to counteract church services and I was left wondering why. Worst of all, the New York City Atheists proudly boasted that they’d been invited to attend Mayor Bloomberg’s inter-faith breakfast for the first time. I found this counter-productive - surely the right course of action is to protest the very idea of an inter-faith breakfast rather than participate and further encourage the image of atheists as just another religion-like special interest group. I didn’t want a seat at the table with priests, rabbis, and imams, I wanted to smash the table and say that politicians shouldn’t be taking advice or guidance from people who spend their days lying to children (especially since this was the same mayor who, faced with a scandal involving Brooklyn Rabbis giving fatal cases of herpes to several infants whose freshly-mutilated penises they’d placed in their mouths to suck away the blood after a circumcision, had said that the most important thing in that case was to respect religious sensitivities.)

But the people who came to the New York City Atheists meet-ups didn’t seem to have the same concerns as me. They were unsurprisingly partisan, most of them being staunch Democrats, and many seemed incredulous when I suggested that atheist organizations should be resolutely non-partisan and instead focus on specific issues. When I tried to discuss activism, they pointed to the ads they had placed on city buses and the street tabling in which they advertised their organization and invited people to join (to be fair, that’s how I found out about them,) although I was always a big fan of the blood drive they organized on the ridiculous “National Day of Prayer,” with the slogan “While religious people are on their knees, we atheists will be on our feet, giving a part of ourselves for the benefit of humanity.” Some members scoffed at the intelligence of religious people, and were dismissive when I argued that they’d be mistaken to underestimate people of faith, and that there were plenty of perfectly capable and intelligent people who believed highly unlikely and even absurd things. And unlike many other atheists I met, I wasn’t convinced that the simple solution to religious belief was a more scientifically-literate society. I had read about too many engineers and doctors in suicide vests to think that a technical or scientific education was an easy antidote to religious indoctrination.

My biggest split with the New York City Atheists and my subsequent exit from the group was in one sense sparked by Sam Harris’s speech. I began to argue that congregating as atheists was fine, and that atheism as a personal philosophical stance was both necessary and worth defending, but that atheism itself was a terrible political cause to rally around. I said that we should organize politically as secularists, and find common cause with religious people who believe in the separation of church and state and who resist theocracy. I was very clear that we shouldn’t hide or adulterate or compromise our personal views about religion, but that when it came to politics, we should support the rights of persecuted religious groups around the world - Copts in Egypt, Muslims in India, Rohingyas in Myanmar. After all, what philosophical minority group was more persecuted around the world than the atheists, the apostates, the infidels and heretics? Ok, maybe the Jews, but the point is that as people who were against religious bullying it seemed perfectly natural to me that atheists should support freedom of belief and conscience in all its forms, even those we disagree with, with the political goal being the guarantee of the right of free thought around the world. The people fighting theocracy are often religious moderates and reformers who needed support, and I saw no reason not to give it to them as long as they equally respected our right to not believe, to disagree, and to express our non-belief, even if they found it offensive.

This proved too much - or too confusing - for many of the people in the group. The idea of rallying under the banner of secularism in support of the rights of religious minorities wasn’t something most members could get behind, and wasn’t nearly so appealing as watching The Life of Brian again and complaining about “In God We Trust” being on the money (stupid though that may be.) The other major problem was the same one we seem to be facing today: plenty of Western atheists are willing to condemn Christianity, but they fail to subject Islam to the same level of scrutiny, or they at least make some tenuous equivalency to assuage their liberal conscience, saying that American evangelicals trying (and failing spectacularly,) to stop gay people from getting married through ballot measures is somehow as bad as Muslim theocracies criminalizing homosexuality, sometimes calling for the execution of anyone accused of it. It seemed like too many of my fellow atheists had assumed that an opposition to George Bush’s foreign policy was enough to identify someone as a liberal, and they never bothered to explore mainstream American Muslim websites like muslimmatters.org where there was recently a blog post arguing that women in “immodest” clothing are guilty of a more insidious sexual harassment than the men who catcall them and another about hating the sin of homosexuality but loving the sinner that could have been written by someone from the Catholic league if you replaced the word “Allah,” with “God.” The usual excuse for this double-standard was a vague “we need to focus on our own problems.” I don’t know when secularism or human rights became so provincial, or when morality was so wedded to geography, but it depressed me that some atheists didn’t take as internationalist a stance as they could have.

In the years since I became somewhat disillusioned with atheism as a movement and stopped actively participating in it, I attended journalism school. I made new friends from all over the world, some of them religious, and I had two professors, Gershom Gorenberg and Samuel Freedman, who wrote regularly (and brilliantly,) on topics of faith. I stepped out of the “new atheist” bubble and saw how petty, nerdy, and myopic many aspects of the movement looked to outsiders. I avoided talking about religion, and I started to keep my still-uncompromising views to myself in the service of social harmony. For a while I even managed to convince myself that atheism was becoming so accepted (the oft-cited polls showing a rise in the number of Americans who check “none” for religion seemed to confirm it,) that the ideological battle against the worst elements of religion had been, although not won, at least shifted in favor of reason (or at the very least moderation.) The Christian right in America had seemingly been gelded at the polls, creationism was getting struck down in whichever courtroom it reared its pathetic head, Islamic-inspired terrorist attacks in the West were regularly thwarted and seemed to be becoming more infrequent, even if there were dismaying examples of religious groups bullying institutions like Yale and Comedy Central into self-censorship. And in 2009 Barack Obama even mentioned “non-believers” in his inauguration speech.

But it’s clear that things are no better now, and possibly even worse. According to a Pew report, religious hostility is at its highest point in six years. We’ve seen the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram, the advances of Al-Shabab, the persecution of Pussy Riot and the crackdown on homosexuality by the Russian Orthodox Christian establishment, the resurgence of Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring, the ascendance to power of a Hindu fundamentalist with a history of (at least tacit) approval of anti-Muslim pogroms in India, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali being bullied into silence by American campus groups (including atheist groups - for shame!) and suddenly it seems like being polite and giving religion the benefit of the doubt and hoping it becomes more moderate and less divisive if we tolerate its more troubling claims under the guise of “respect” is not only no longer possible but no longer moral. In what could be an ironic headline from the Onion, The Guardian published an article called “Religious extremism main cause of terrorism, according to report.” Although studies show encouraging signs that support for religious violence and Islamist groups is down, Pew’s report on the Muslim world last year showed wide support for Sharia law, the execution of apostates, and a desire for more religious influence in politics. In a troubling parallel, apparently many Americans are lamenting the decline of religion in politics, too. For all the evidence and testimony that Muslim’s aren’t liked or trusted by their fellow Americans, a recent Pew poll shows that atheists are just as disliked. Another recent poll, this one conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found the same thing: Atheists and Muslims are almost equally disliked, and held in lower esteem than immigrants, gays and lesbians, Catholics, and Jews - everyone but Communists. And yet atheist student groups don’t seem to cry foul and complain about hurt feelings and offended sensibilities nearly as much as faith-based ones do whenever someone who disagrees with them speaks on campus. This despite the fact that there’s plenty of anti-atheist rhetoric to be found in the holy books on every pulpit of every church, synagogue, or mosque. And still one doesn’t see many atheists seeking to ban scripture on the grounds that it contains hate speech, or silence preachers with whom they don’t agree. The tolerance of nonbelievers for speech they disagree with (and which consistently insults them,) should be lauded - we’ve certainly had to put up with it for long enough.

In the years since I ended my public involvement in the “new atheism,” I’ve made some religious friends, as well as non-religious friends who follow the Ben Affleck example of apologetics (and insist, despite video evidence to the contrary, that he actually won anything resembling a debate rather than shouted down an opposing view without listening to it,) and I’ve more or less kept my opposition to religion to myself. I see friends who I respect and admire using the term “Islamophobia,” with a straight face and reposting articles on Facebook automatically calling any criticism of Islamic doctrine, dogma, or scripture racist and bigoted (this despite the fact that they seem perfectly able to understand, quite rightly, that criticism of Israeli government and policy doesn’t automatically equate with anti-Semitism.) And I hope that they’ll listen to what I have to say and engage me in debate rather than ignore me, slander me, misrepresent my views, or try to shut me up. If the current climate is any indication, I don’t have high hopes for this. But things are getting worse and well-meaning people are allying themselves with and making excuses for the most reactionary and oppressive (and patently absurd,) ideologies ever committed to papyrus.

People often describe “new atheists” as militant, despite the fact that atheists aren’t currently blowing up mosques and churches or executing non-atheists in the name of disbelief. This was most absurdly put by Karen Armstrong in a recent Salon interview in which she said that the ideas of Sam Harris and Bill Maher “is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps.” Apparently Ms. Armstrong thinks that Harris’ and Maher’s criticism of Islamic ideology is more reminiscent of Nazism than state-sanctioned Hindu nationalist educators in India saying things like “the truth is that historically we have been a far superior race," and advocating the burning of books they disagree with or Muslim protesters in Germany chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”

If the “militancy” that critics are referring to is the unvarnished and unapologetic opposition to faith-based belief on an individual level and religious power on a political level, than we could do with a lot more militancy. Religious hatred, violence, power, and bullying need to be resisted, and our side needs as many voices as it can get. We must be unafraid and true to our own consciences and we need to make no apologies and refuse to compromise with abhorrent ideologies. The discourse is calling out for a heaping dose of honesty, and we nonbelievers need to hold the line and not give in to hypocrisy and wishful thinking.

We should by all means encourage and support religious moderates and reformers, but only as long as they recognize our right to exist and speak our minds as nonbelievers without fear of censorship or reprisal. The holy books and doctrines of the world’s major religions all take a condescending, insulting, and sometimes actively hateful and violent view of non-believers. We are continually maligned in their pages as, at best, fools who live in ignorance of god’s grace and are destined to be judged at the end of time or, at worst, dangerous people who god (who presumably created them and made them atheists, for some reason,) would be very pleased at the destruction and torture of. We shouldn’t be so quick to shut up in the name of a “respect” that has never been reciprocated. This issue is far too important to ignore or sugarcoat, and atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers need to be more vocal and politically active on secular issues globally, not simply ending their commitment at the borders of their own countries. Religion will probably never be eradicated, but the fight against it must never cease if there’s to be any hope for a future of less psychological tyranny, theocratic repression, and sectarianism based on a thin but spreading tissue of ancient lies.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Romance of ISIS

I don't always write about dandies or menswear, although I seem to have better luck getting published when I do. One might suspect that magazines and websites are hesitant to publish opinion pieces by people who don't specialize in specific fields, but a brief survey of many websites will show that expertise is rarely the standard, avowing allegiance to a particular group - biological or ideological - is often mistaken for something like a credential, and rational argument is valued less than the ability to use phrases like "I can't even," "so many feels," and "because ____." So I've decided to use this blog to publish those essays I can't help but write whether anyone publishes them or not. I write them partly to stay in practice as a writer, and partly to focus and organize my own thoughts about particular issues. If anybody reads them I hope they get some pleasure out of doing so and recognize that argument, disagreement, and dissent can be very good things. 



The Romance of ISIS
(written and re-written from the end of August when ISIS swept close toward the Kurdish region and the first reports of large numbers of international fighters joining their ranks appeared in the press.)

It is a mantra of politicians the world over that when confronting a group like ISIS, military and political intervention isn’t enough and that the root causes of extremism need to be addressed. People cite the alienation, disenfranchisement, and lack of economic opportunity for young Muslims in the West, and suggest that if their futures were only more secure they wouldn’t be so easily “radicalized.” It would seem that the world’s leaders have an incomplete grasp of the desires and interests of many young people. For every earnest teenager concerned with their economic future and career, there are plenty of brooding Hamlets or dissolute but passionate Prince Hals, eagerly looking for some cause to give their life meaning in the present with little thought for the morrow: the more extreme, radical, and seemingly noble the better. What too many Westerners, obsessed as we are with comfort and security, fail to notice is that one of the most attractive elements of the Jihadist path is its romantic appeal.

ISIS has invited young Muslims around the world to personally participate in a sanguinary romance, a sublime reckoning, using a vocabulary of honor, glory, and martyrdom of which the West has become wary and cynical. They promise hardship, danger, violence, and, consequently, meaning. If these recruits look for a counter-offer from the West they’ll likely see, first and foremost, the material comforts, lack of faith, and supposedly selfish pursuits that their leaders identify as symptoms of the very malaise they’ve been called to cure.

ISIS-produced videos like “The Flames of War” lure young men to fight with images of Hollywood-style violence, and blogs like “Diary of aTraveller,” a Tumblr run by an insufferable Malaysian girl in Syria who manages to be simultaneously nihilistic and twee (a photo of a Kalashnikov in one post, a still from the Disney film “Frozen” in another, and plenty or rants combining equal parts sentimentality and hatred,) coax women to the cause with talk of divinely-sanctioned true love and marriage to would-be martyrs (who will presumably occupy themselves with their celestial virgins until their terrestrial wives are martyred too.) Such romantic expressions are crude, often juvenile, and suggest people who are deeply retarded emotionally and intellectually - their dogmatic hatred of most art, music, and culture is further proof if any was needed.

Unlike foreign armies of the past, ISIS’ western recruits aren’t mere mercenaries; they’re a hideous mutation of the soldier of conscience, who joins a foreign war on principle. One can’t help but wonder why, in the face of this nakedly savage and brutal threat, there are no foreign nationals (apart from a few hundred brave Kurdish ex-pats and one or two American veterans,) joining the fight on the ground against ISIS.

In the 1930’s politically-engaged intellectuals voluntarily took up arms to fight Fascism in Spain. The International Brigade included the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, George Orwell, Esmond Romilly and Jessica Mitford, and Stephen Spender. Europeans and Americans of various political stripes fought an enemy which they recognized as a deadly threat to the values in which they believed. And they wrote poetry, novels, and memoirs about it. Today the only cause which seems to be inspiring people to leave their countries, fight, and possibly die, is an ideology which crows of its beheadings, rapes, genocide, and theocracy - and the poetry on “Diary of a Traveller” is execrable.

Part of the problem is the bureaucratic distance on this side – an institutional insistence on proper channels. Want to fight terrorists? Join the army - although it’ll take a while and you’ll have to fight whomever we tell you to. Want to help suffering people? Donate to any number of worthy charities and volunteer locally. My generation and subsequent ones, so used to instant communication and instant results on a global level, are unsurprisingly more attracted to the mirror image of the secret agent’s tap on the shoulder - the man in the mosque saying he’ll put you on the next flight to eternal glory.

A bigger problem is our poor symbolism; for people who get so violently bent out of shape about representative art, ISIS is good with imagery. They gloat over photos of two smoldering towers to which our uninspiring memorial is two square craters (the remarkable thing about the buildings wasn’t their girth.) They have a stark white-on-black flag bearing the shahada, we have a smirking man in a flight jacket standing in front of a painfully ironic “Mission Accomplished” banner. They wipe out the border between two countries, claiming it as a repudiation of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and our version of “never forget” includes a 9/11 terror attacks cheese plate.

It’s easy to say that ISIS is evil and that evil must be fought, but in the name of what? Good is vague and God both vague and divisive. The spasms of nationalism and patriotism felt in the wakes of attacks on Western countries or their citizens abroad aren’t enough to counter a threat that recognizes no borders. The destruction or theft of land or property doesn’t stack up to the heady romance of holy war as a reason for people to leave their homes and go fight - if it did there would be far more young Muslims trying to get into Gaza to join Hamas.

There’s no shortage of causes around which we can rally: the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and apostates, and the right of children of both sexes to education. But that’s a lot to fit on one flag. These concepts reside under the umbrella of “liberty;” as good a banner to march under as one can hope for, but a weakly defined and advocated concept these days. When a group that forces female populations into vertical body bags and anybody who resists it into horizontal ones can claim, as it does, that it is an army of liberation, partly from western “decadence” - a word with which we’ve become so unfamiliar now we primarily use it in reference to chocolate - the battle of language isn’t going in our favor.

If tomorrow five thousand young foreigners from around the world, funded by people impassioned by their cause, flew to Erbil to form international brigades alongside the Pesh Merga, devoting themselves to defending the people, libraries, shrines, and museums of Iraq and Syria in the absence of ground troops from capable but hesitant nations, it would be difficult to ever doubt the resolve to fight Islamic extremism again. It could also be pure folly, and possibly a military disaster, so those fighting ISIS need to find another way to strike as effective a blow to the ideological and romantic morale of young Jihadists, to convince them that there are people on the other side just as willing to fight for ideas, who are animated not by a threat to land, lives, and property, but to concepts which they hold inviolable.

During the Greek War of Independence a Turkish regiment controlled the Acropolis, garrisoning troops on the monument-covered hill. As the Greeks’ siege entered its second year the Turks, running out of ammunition, began to smash the ancient stones of the Parthenon and the other monuments in order to melt down for bullets the lead clamps which held the walls together. When the Greeks heard this, they hurriedly sent an emissary to the Turkish commander. He implored them not to damage the buildings anymore, going so far as to offer the Greeks’ own bullets for the Turks to use against them instead. The Turks may have been surprised at such a suicidal offer, but the logic was clear to the Greeks: what are we fighting and dying for, they reasoned, if not for this? It was this kind of inspiring resolve, combined with a Philhellenic love of Greek antiquity that led Lord Byron to abandon the comfortable and indolent life of a hugely successful poet, his yacht, and his endless stream of seductees, and go to personally fight (and eventually die,) for the cause of Greek independence. It would seem that today, the people most willing to abandon comfort and fight for a cause they truly believe in are the same ones who’ve created the neatest symbol for their movement’s goal in the form of the serial beheadings they commit and broadcast: a world as brainless as them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Dandy Life Continues

The big news from the world of I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman is that Rose and I (and Rose's husband Kelly,) will be making a documentary this fall! We're very excited to revisit our dandy subjects and to have an opportunity to add some new voices to our menagerie of elegant fellows.

In the meanwhile, I am Dandy received a big bump when it was featured in a segment on CBS Sunday Morning:


I was also the subject of a mini-documentary called "Am I Dandy?"


And last but certainly not least, it is my great honor to have been profiled in 12 outfits (with one more to come,) for the artist Ike Ude's Chic Index:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12