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:

The Secular Life

Last week David Brooks wrote a breathtakingly condescending op-Ed in the New York Times about the Sisyphean struggle we poor secularists have to face in order to find meaning and morality in the world. The Times published some responses from secularists, but they didn't publish the one I sent them, which you can read below.

When I was involved in secular activism I noticed a split. Those of us raised religion-free didn’t crave the comforts of faith, didn’t hunger for the community of a church, and were perfectly capable of finding meaning and making moral decisions without divine guidance. Those who had left religion, however, occasionally looked like David Brooks’ idea of a secular person – unmoored, seeking the community they’d lost, saddled with “unprecedented moral burdens.” Their lives as believers had stunted them and ill-prepared them to stand unaided by faith. For those of us not lucky enough to be raised fearing a vengeful god, this usually isn’t an issue.

Brooks is right that secularism can’t rest on rationalism alone. Fortunately, it is ably buttressed by humanism, another enlightenment value. We faithless have countless sources of morality and transcendence (most religions only have one.) Our scriptures are the stories humans tell, the ideas and histories we record, the art people make. All of these can inspire, warn, and provoke debate and reflection. The holy books are full of stories, too (written by men as well,) but the only reasons to exalt the questionable moral examples of prophets and patriarchs over the ideas, struggles, and choices of say, Sydney Carton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Huckleberry Finn, or Thomas Jefferson are faith, dogma, and the easy comfort of consensus.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie; suis-je Islamophobe?

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
-John Stuart Mill

Like most people, I was upset but not surprised by the attacks in Paris last week, when several pious men with Kalashnikovs slaughtered cartoonists, editors, journalists, policemen, and customers at a Kosher store in the name of their god’s will. Just a few weeks earlier, at the height of Hollywood’s indignation over Kim Jong Un’s de facto veto of “The Interview,” I had wondered to myself where the people speaking up so defiantly for free speech were during the Danish cartoon controversy, or after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, or during the Rushdie affair. I’m surprised but pleased to see that in the aftermath of this bloodbath, the record numbers of people marching around the world seem to have got the right idea: free expression is not to be met with violence or intimidation. This is because these freedoms are essential to any functioning society. Rosa Luxemburg, the Communist hero, once said that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element... Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must cause a brutalization of public life...”

Soon enough, however, the caveats came. There were some Imams who more or less openly said that Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to it. A few Muslim leaders came down unequivocally on the side of free speech (usually getting lavish praise for this - condemning violence is the least a person in authority should do.) But there are also plenty of “moderate” Muslim leaders who have said that violence is the wrong answer to mockery and insult but that the insult and mockery are dangerous, too. Some of these leaders have even called for the introduction of (or in some cases enforcement of existing,) blasphemy and hate speech laws. The current pope has, unsurprisingly, said that freedom of speech has limits and that people should treat religions with “respect,” (offering no explanation as to why.) As an example he said that if someone insults his mother he should expect a punch. Perhaps Francis was trying to be playful, but the idea that an insult should naturally be met with violence doesn’t sound like the sort of justification a religious leader should be making. And it is an excellent example of blaming the victims. Orthodox Jews are getting in on the ecumenicism by photoshopping all the female world leaders out of the Paris march. This has been held up as an example of hypocrisy on the matter of free speech - it is that, but it is first and foremost evidence that what religions all too often have in common is the urge to repress the things they deem unclean. Something should be made clear: the desire for state or religious restriction on speech is not a moderate view. Although those calling for it may not be violent, the demand being made is an extremist one, one which would require rolling back hundreds of years of legal and ethical progress in most western nations and, in the case of my country, violating the cornerstone of its constitution.

The American version of free speech, which is meant to be absolute and protects even hateful speech, is sometimes confusing to people from other countries. I once attended a conference on secularism in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was around the time some hillbilly preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a bunch of Korans and people around the world were bracing for the inevitable holy consequences. The panelists at the conference, all of them Dutch, were incredulous at the idea that the President of the United States had to phone this guy up and personally ask him not to do it for the safety of Americans overseas. How backward and secularly hopeless America must be if idiots like this preacher have to be groveled to by the President! I told them that they’d missed the whole point of the story: the President had to call him on the phone and ask him not to do it - he couldn’t force him not to. Why couldn’t they see how wonderful that is?!

It’s this concept of free speech and secularism that I like most about America, even if it isn’t always upheld. Secularism looks different in different countries. In the U.S. it’s supposed to be a sort of laissez-faire situation - although I would argue that religious groups not being taxed is special treatment. In India secularism is a tissue-thin barrier, regularly breached and stained with blood. In the United Kingdom it involves equal government approval, accommodation, and even support of religious groups - a policy that has come under some much-needed scrutiny after it was discovered that several faith schools were pushing fundamentalist beliefs.

In France, the laïcité version of secularism has become quite extreme in the past few years, most notably with their ban on religious apparel or symbols in schools. This is too far, as it curtails free speech and free exercise of religion, both of which need to be present in a truly pluralistic society. I dislike the burqa as much as Nicolas Sarkozy does, and I would understand a ban on full-face coverings in certain places purely on grounds of security, but this sort of aggressive reaction is the wrong response and will only dampen public debate and dissent and further divide the polity into aggrieved groups who feel persecuted. It will make integration more difficult.

France and many European countries have an even greater blot on their ledgers: hate speech laws. These are the products of a guilty conscience, chiefly regarding the horrors of the last century, and it opens them up to justifiable charges of hypocrisy, and reinforces the arguments of those who claim that certain groups are singled out for censorship more than others. France is the nation of Voltaire but it is also the nation of Dreyfuss, and of Vichy, and it has made a cardinal mistake in thinking that the way to prevent future horrors is to stifle dissent about past horrors. Holocaust denial is illegal. The Nazi salute is illegal. And as we have learned this week, people in France are being arrested for expressing anything which might be construed as approval of terrorism. This is a travesty.

Most notably, the controversial comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was arrested for a tweet which could be interpreted as him saying he identified with one of the terrorists. Dieudonne is a provocative tight-rope walker, often slipping from the line into outright anti-Semitism. The jokes of his I’ve seen and read aren’t particularly funny, but the French government’s response to his offensive jokes - often canceling his shows - is a huge mistake and the height of hypocrisy. Dieudonne might be a gross bigot, but he’s exactly the kind of person whose speech needs to be protected. His infamous “quenelle” gesture (a sort of inverted Nazi salute,) is understandably disturbing to many French people, but it does serve a higher function: it proves the prohibition on Nazi gestures is ridiculous. If someone can make a new gesture up, and it can arguably mean the same thing, and people are equally outraged by it, what’s the difference? Indeed, lawmakers have called for the banning of the “quenelle.” Where does this end? And what purpose does it serve? Will banning one gesture after another as well as holocaust denial and racist slogans end racist thoughts or feelings? Will it make up for the holocaust or Vichy France’s complicity in it? Of course not. It will drive these ideas underground where they are immune from counter argument. It will make martyrs of their proponents and do the public a disservice by not letting them learn what these people think and believe. As Mill points out in “On Liberty:” The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Or, as Milton once said, “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Blasphemy is a thought crime. According to the texts of the great monotheisms, one needn’t utter something that displeases the merciful yet jealous man behind the curtain in order for him to hear you - he conveniently and terrifyingly hears your thoughts, too. Blasphemy is, to the religious, a sin, usually a very serious one. But should a religious ban on blasphemy (a victimless crime to we atheists,) be incumbent upon those who don’t share the faith in question? Thankfully, in the wake of these attacks, countries such as Canada and Ireland are re-examining their own dusty and rarely-invoked blasphemy laws, but, just as religious groups rebranded creationism as intelligent design, zealots try to get criticism of their god or faith categorized as “hate speech” or “religious defamation.” (I confess to having a fantasy in which a hate speech law is passed in the United States and millions of atheists file suit to have the Bible and Koran banned for their hateful slander of unbelievers - not to actually ban the books but to prove an important point.)

Hate speech and religious defamation need to be protected, otherwise we’ll live in a world where, because some things are unutterable they are unquestionable and, as a result, unchangeable - the sort of static, pious, and stultifying world religious fundamentalists would apparently like to see. Many Muslims have said that we in the west simply don’t understand how it feels to have our deeply-held beliefs insulted. On the contrary, my most deeply-held belief is outraged when anyone is persecuted, attacked, or murdered just for saying something. I contend that my belief in freedom of speech is just as strong as their belief in god and his prophets, just as dear, and even more worth defending for being based on reason rather than faith.

I defend my right to criticize any religion I like, fully acknowledging that its adherents are free to criticize (but not persecute or attack,) me. So here goes:

I don’t like Islam. There really shouldn’t be a problem with me saying that, and yet there are plenty of people in the world who think I shouldn’t: some who consider it blasphemy, others who consider it racism, and more who consider it needless provocation. But it is my opinion, and believers around the world are welcome to the opinion, expressed often enough in their holy books, that I should suffer for holding it. As long as they don’t act on it (besides, surely their all-powerful god can smite me on his own, can’t he?) I should be clear that I don’t like any religions. First of all, I don’t believe any of them are true. I don’t believe the children of Israel were lost for 40 years in a tiny patch of desert, I don’t believe a galilean carpenter was born of a virgin or resurrected after death, and I don’t believe in angels, much less one of them dictating stories from the bible to a man in an Arabian cave. I think it’s ridiculous to genuinely believe any of that and I reserve my right to say so. In the case of Islam I find its holy book to be morally empty where it isn’t downright cruel, its prophet to be vicious, violent, and venal, and certainly no exemplar or role model, and I take issue with the way it is practiced in all too many parts of the world.

This doesn’t mean I hate or fear Muslims. I have no problem with any devout person believing what they like, wearing whatever they like, or following any rules which I may find ridiculous or arbitrary. And if it gives them some comfort or pleasure, that’s their business. But if anyone suggests that my right to voice such opinions is more dangerous than their religion and should be restricted as a result, they are an enemy of mine and in no way a “moderate” voice.

The question lately has come down to a controversial word: Islamophobia. It should come as no surprise that I don’t like it. I tend to agree with Twitter user Andrew Cummin’s definition: “A word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Acrophobia is an irrational fear of heights, and arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders. By the same measure, Islamophobia would be an irrational fear of Islam. Of course, just because people can have an irrational fear of something doesn’t mean that there aren’t some perfectly rational reasons to be worried about the same thing. Some spiders are venomous. Some precipices are more dangerous than others. And parts of the Koran are disturbing. And some people who claim to be members of the Muslim faith are openly calling for hideous and immoral things in its name. People who claim that I’m judging the many by the actions of the few are wrong: I’m not criticizing individual muslim people, I’m criticizing the dogmas and teachings of their faith. They might hold those beliefs very dearly indeed, but I have just as much conviction in my beliefs and free speech is paramount among them.

The fatuous examples are often repeated: ISIS and the Paris murderers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church are representative of Christianity. But the KKK and the WBC are perfectly representative of certain aspects of Christian teaching and belief. They derive their authority from the bible and can quote chapter and verse in order to do so. Just because the majority of Christians in America have successfully shucked away the more barbaric aspects of their faith (after hard-fought generations of often-suppressed criticism and - you guessed it - blasphemy,) doesn’t mean that the fundamentalists are any less Christian. Could it be that religious moderates are so afraid of the taint of these extremist groups because they know these groups are hewing closer to the word of the lord than they are?

Not liking Islam, even hating Islam, is not racist, and not just because Islam is an ideology rather than a race. Muslims are unsurprisingly proud of their religion’s global and multi-ethnic makeup. One can’t boast about how universal and pan-racial your ideology is and then call any criticism of it racist. And to hate Islam does not automatically mean hating Muslims. The people who fail to understand this don’t seem to have any trouble with this same concept when they rightly point out that criticizing Israeli policy isn’t anti-semitism. PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in Great Britain, and the Front Nationale in France are disturbing right-wing populist parties that do often capitalize on ideas about national culture and a fear of “otherness” in order to further their anti-immigrant agenda. But criticizing Islam, Islamic doctrine, or Islamic leaders, or saying that a person’s horrific crimes might be related in some way to their belief system isn’t racism.

Sam Harris, who was the beneficiary of many insults and mischaracterizations when he said “Islam is the mother lode of all bad ideas,” defended himself by asking whether it would be as controversial if he had said “Communism is the mother lode of all bad ideas.” Obviously not, but why? The analogy isn’t exact (few analogies are,) and I certainly hold no paranoid right-wing delusions that Muslims in the West are fifth-columnists controlled from Mecca, but there are enough similarities for the analogy to be useful and relevant. Communism is an ideology that was put into practice in countries around the world. The implementation of communist government was done differently in different places (although the Comintern did have undue influence,) and it would be impossible to speak of all communists as being the same. But the foundational texts were the same the world over, even if they were interpreted in different ways, and to criticize the ideas found within them was obviously not the same thing as making blanket statements about all communist countries or all communist people.

In the case of Russia there were communists the world over who had blind faith in the Soviet system, who ignored reports of its horrors, who considered any questioning of the Comintern to be blasphemy. Those who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the likes of Yezhov and Beria, driven mad by their ordeal, repented for crimes they never committed, and even thanked their persecutors for bringing them back to the light of the party. Once the horrors and extent of the Soviet purges were public and couldn’t be ignored any more, those still sympathetic to Communism have always made a clear distinction between it and Stalinism, much as we distinguish between Islam and Islamism today. This is a very useful and important distinction. But the fact remains that from the USSR to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, to Cuba to Vietnam to North Korea to China to Laos to Cambodia to the Balkans and beyond, self-declared communist countries seemed to have inordinate amounts of oppression and censorship and very few guarantees of personal liberty or individual rights. This should have sent up flags (in this case literally red ones,) that something could be amiss with the fundamentals of the ideology.

Of course, correlation is not causation and the fact that all of these different states exhibited some of the same severe totalitarian tendencies during their tenure as communist nations could be coincidence. But to swear outright that communism has nothing to do with it and shouldn’t even be considered as a possible cause of such horror is about the same as saying that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism (a term that the Obama administration is admittedly uncomfortable uttering.) In many places in the world, Communism became a secular religion with the state as its god. The writings of Marx and Lenin were its testaments, the apocrypha being supplied by the likes of Stalin and Mao. Today, we seem to have a similar situation in the world of Islam: where it holds the most power, people suffer more, rights are trampled on or non-existent, minorities are persecuted, and dissent is almost impossible. When Arthur Koestler published the testimonies of ex-Communists he called the book “The God that Failed.” When Ibn Warraq published his book of testimonies of ex-Muslims, he considered calling it “The Allah that Failed,” but ended up settling for “Leaving Islam.” Communism had its defectors and Islam has its apostates - we should learn from the past and not ignore their stories, or try to shut them up as so many frightened people do to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It took decades of unspeakable human suffering before glasnost confirmed the horrifying reports of Soviet defectors, who had been urgent Cassandras, willfully ignored by fellow-travelers who thought that the U.S.S.R. surely couldn’t be that bad. And besides, these people are criminals with a grudge, how can we believe their testimony? And after all, the U.S.S.R. is opposed to American capitalism and therefore the good guys - how could it possibly be so brutal? And even if it is, it must be for a good reason. We ignore the testimonies of those desperate and unable to leave their faith at our own risk.

A common argument seen these past few days is that while Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender, it’s one thing to mock those in power and another to mock a downtrodden minority. Of course, that isn’t what Charlie Hebdo was doing - the magazine was famously anti-racist and pro-immigrant - it was mocking an authority figure who they thought was being given undue respect: the prophet Mohammed. Globally Islam is not a tiny minority voice but a major player, a powerful ideology, the official religion of many states, and the beneficiary of a great deal of oil wealth by which its messages are often spread across the globe to disaffected youth, teaching them violence, sexism, and racism. Muslims in France and most other Western countries are, of course, a minority group, albeit usually one with legal protections and rights of the kind a Jew wouldn’t expect in Jeddah nor a Homosexual in Homs. Of course, the rights of minorities are infringed upon in western nations all the time, but the fact that provision is made for legal recourse is important, and it gives people a fighting chance at justice. No such chance exists where the religious judiciary holds sway.

I obviously don’t believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or extremists, or sexist, or homophobic. But I do think the Koran and the life of Mohammed are horrible moral guidelines that could go some way to explaining why some Muslims are those things. I appreciate that the religion has been shaped and altered and interpreted through time and culture, and that many Muslims practice a less strict or orthodox faith that preaches tolerance and respect. I think that that’s a comparatively good thing. But you’d have to dilute Islam to the point of atheism for me to actually approve of it, because one of the ideas at its core (and which it has in common with most other religions,) is submission to a higher power, a worshipful personal relationship with a ruler who demands you love him while threatening eternal suffering. I believe religion is the wish to be a slave and I’ll have none of it. I'm willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs quite far. But asking me to respect them is asking me to do something I cannot do. And aside from all that, even in its mildest form there’s no reason to believe that it’s true, thank god.

Perhaps more depressing than the Imams who blamed the dead or called for stricter censorship, were those in the West (many of them friends of mine,) who immediately laid the blame for this at their own feet. In recent years a certain portion of the left has become increasingly disappointing for caving in to religious sentiment and for only seeing evil in the mirror. There is a creeping tendency, masochistic and solipsistic all at once, to say “this is because of what we did.”

Almost immediately after the recent attack in Sidney, a tweet went viral about someone who, seeing a Muslim girl looking nervous and removing her headscarf on public transportation, told her to put it back on and offered to ride the bus with her for her protection. Many people praised this gesture and soon the hashtag #illridewithyou was trending, its users offering to accompany worried Muslims anywhere they needed to go for fear of anti-Muslim violence. I found the whole thing as self-hating as it was cloyingly sentimental. No threats had been made against Australian Muslims, no violence against them had yet occurred, and the corpse of the man who had kidnapped several terrified hostages in a cafe was barely cold before legions of Australians and westerners made it all about them, wallowing in contrition over things that hadn’t actually happened. Why, when these tragedies happen, do so many people immediately focus on, if not what they see as the western source of the problem, then at least what they see as the inevitable, ignorant, and hateful western response to the problem. I, for one, don’t like being spoken to that way. In any society there will be some idiots who retaliate with violence, but I’m not one of them and to immediately assume that the typical response to terrorism will be great waves of anti-Muslim violence is as unfair as saying that all Muslims will react violently to a cartoon of their prophet. Perhaps #illridewithyou was some sneaky way of introducing a bleating #notallwesterners protestation next to the perfectly banal and uncontroversial #notallmuslims. Of course, anti-Muslim sentiment and incidents of anti-Muslim violence can and often do escalate after a terrorist attack like this, and that should be fought against, resisted, and punished with as much force as possible. But the rapidity with which some westerners tear their shirt and demand to be flagellated for their crimes and ignorance in order to prove their own ideological purity and sympathy can be impressive sometimes (the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner focuses on this topic in his book-length essay “The Tyranny of Guilt.”)

But the best thing about the values of the Enlightenment is that they contain within them skepticism and a potent self-criticism. Much to it’s credit, this country is a place of incredible contradictions. America was the last western state to outlaw slavery, but it was also the only one which almost tore itself completely apart over it (the John Stuart Mill quote at the top of this article was written in reference to that.) America has both the legacy of Jim Crow and a black commander-in-chief. Several commentators have brought up the CIA Torture Report as evidence of American hypocrisy. But the very existence of such a savage and damning report, demanded by elected members of our government and their constituents, the public shame and condemnation, and the many calls for punishment of those involved goes to show that America is different, even better, than some countries where the idea of a government (especially a theocratic one,) ever admitting its failures, much less acting to redress them, is a fantasy. Christopher Hitchens once said that he decided he wanted to become an American citizen when he saw black police officers defending a Ku Klux Klan rally. The point is made well and at length in Aryeh Neier’s book “Defending My Enemy,” documenting the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal fight defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to many holocaust survivors. The existence of our constitutional right to free speech, the legacy of people’s struggles for freedom and equality, and the various avenues of redress through a free press and a public court system are something we can still be proud of, even if administrations have betrayed them at times. Calling on our states to impose censorship on us is a demand for tyranny, and we should never lose sight of just how dearly won our freedoms are and how they need to be defended at all times, whether from religious bullies claiming immunity from criticism or government fanatics seeking to curtail dissent. I’m reminded of James Fenton’s poem “The Exchange:”

I met the Muse of Censorship
And she had packed her bags
And all the folk of Moscow
Were hanging out the flags.

I asked her what her prospects were
And whither her thoughts did range.
She said: ‘I am off to Dublin town
On a cultural exchange.

‘And folk there be in Cambridge
Who like the way I think
And there be folk in Nottingham
Whom I shall drown in ink

‘And when we reach America
The majorettes will sing:
Here comes the Muse of Censorship -
This is a very good thing.’

I went to the Finland Station
To wave the Muse goodbye
And on another platform
A crowd I did espy.

I saw the Muse of Freedom
Alighting from the train.
Far from that crowd I wept aloud
For to see that Muse again.

Melting turtle impersonator, alleged plagiarist, and all-around zealot Chris Hedges is the prime example of the self-hating liberal, and in his grandstanding statement which did all but absolve religious extremists of their sins because of the crimes of the West, he quotes an Islamic scholar: “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts...It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West...Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion. Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one. I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

Liberty absolutely means the freedom to insult, demean, and mock anything you want to. If others don’t like it, they’re free to ignore you or talk back. Religion may be more important to someone than their race, but religion is an ideology, and not a biological occurrence - it needs to be open to criticism. Of course Muslims are allowed to feel insulted. I hope some of them are as insulted by the cartoons as I am by their holy books and the clerics who claim to represent many of them. And the range of recent Islamic outrages, from banning snowmen in Saudi Arabia to the massacre of villagers in Nigeria, are crying out for mockery, contempt, and ridicule. But if the author thinks that we should be returning to a culture based on shame and honor codes, as he seems to be suggesting, he should be met with some much-needed resistance.

According to the New York Times, Egyptian Family House, a Coptic Christian and Muslim organization, denounced the cartoons on the grounds that they “increase the gap between people and religions.” I’d say they just about hit the nail on the head, there. That was the point. It’s perfectly correct and understandable for religious leaders to be afraid of satire and criticism because they loosen, even if only slightly, the stranglehold religion and the clerisy has had on humankind for thousands of years. Blasphemy has been one of the most reliable catalysts of progress in the western world - it’s only by openly challenging the dogmas and orthodoxies of religion that people have been able to assert their own rights as humans outside of a divine framework. Censoring oneself isn’t an act of respect to those you might offend - it’s an act of infantilization. It presupposes that the target of one’s satire or criticism isn’t grown up or strong enough to handle it. Every time a cleric says that some cartoon or novel or painting or film offends their faith deeply, they’re saying that their faith isn’t up to the challenge of a single work of art. And some members of their religion will be such crybabies and children that their tantrums will involve guns and bombs.

This is a battle over freedom of speech, between those who believe in laughter and those who believe in literalism. It isn’t only an issue of terrorism or west vs. east or the oppressed vs. the oppressors. The two sides in this war are those who believe that freedom of thought, belief, conscience, speech, and expression are inviolable rights, and those who believe not only that there are circumstances in which they should be curtailed or proscribed but that they known what those circumstances are. The possible threat of violence is a convenient background hum for anyone who wants to insist that they condemn such attacks but they can’t be held responsible for what other people do and after all why insult the deepest beliefs of millions of people? It allows the demagogue and censor to say that he didn’t pull the trigger but the murdered man should have known better.

If all the countries in the world made it illegal to show or insult mohammed, if all the foreign troops (and aid workers, and journalists, and foreigners in general,) left Muslim countries, if all support for Israel ceased today, would the likes of Richard Reid, the Tsarnayev brothers, the Kouachi brothers, Jihadi John, Nidal Malik Hassan, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Man Haron Monis, and the countless other jihadis who have attacked or attempted to attack westerners (to say nothing of the exponentially greater number of jihadis making life a living hell for Muslims in their own countries in the name of their shared religion,) be satisfied and stop what they’re doing? If we just agreed to leave them alone and not make them angry would they be content to stay in Muslim-majority countries and focus on their campaigns of rape, violence, repression and terror safely “over there?” If we allow that female circumcision, anti-secular Madrassa education, forced marriages and honor killings are valid cultural expressions would that appease them? Would we have any right to call ourselves moral if we accepted any of this? Of course most Muslims don’t do any of these things or even dream of doing them, but the fanatics are the ones making these demands, and they won’t stop making them, no matter what we do. And if we give in to even one of them we’ll have to forfeit more because they’ll know we’re afraid of them. We shouldn’t seek to accommodate barbaric totalitarianisms. They need to be resisted.

As Oscar Wilde once said: “Progress in thought is the assertion of individualism against authority…Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on its own spirit…”

But political genius Russell Brand said “The right of free speech is important, but it isn’t as important as 'we’re all human beings together, let’s find solutions together'.” What he doesn’t understand is that the second is impossible without the first. One sometimes hears a comparison between Islamic terrorism and the IRA. But there’s a crucial difference, and it isn’t just that the IRA sometimes called ahead to warn people: the IRA made concrete political demands. There was some possibility of a compromise worked out without recourse to violence. What the jihadists demand in the case of Charlie Hebdo and others like it is not only unacceptable but impossible, because it violates the principle most important to the evolution and development of a civilization, and laws that seek to regulate speech are the first step toward laws against freedom of belief.
All the many religious figures who said that the cartoons were needless provocation and that it would be better if we all sought common ground, they should understand that the existence of such this common ground is thanks to the right to offend, to blaspheme, to criticize and condemn. I would like to be able to debate with Muslims on an equal footing. I’d love to tell them why I think they’d be better off abandoning superstition, submission, and a moral code based on archaic scripture and I’d like to hear them tell me why they think I’d be better off adopting Islam. But that conversation can’t take place with the threat of violence looming, or the charge that to question, criticize, or ridicule the teachings of a faith is tantamount to racism. That is unacceptable and non-negotiable.

I am not Charlie Hebdo, but I aspire to be. I hope that if I am ever told to shut up or else I’ll choose freedom over fear.