Thanks for Nothing, Ken Mehlman

I was at the RNC’s winter meeting in 2007, immediately following their electoral drubbing the previous year, interning for ABC News. There, I watched Ken Mehlman, manager of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign and then the outgoing RNC chair, give a speech on expanding the GOP’s appeal beyond its base. Even then, it struck me as out of place.

Yes, this RNC meeting was full of despondency, reevaluation and the nursing of wounds, but even following a massive defeat in which the GOP had lost both houses of Congress in an anti-Bush-fueled sweep, the usual Republican mise en scène was still boldly on display: rich, white, Christian men feeling pretty good about being rich, white, Christian and male.

But Mehlman not only gave the standard “we didn’t connect with voters” postmortem speech that many others gave, he also ran through a list the groups with which the RNC had allegedly made new inroads under his reign (though electoral results belied this). He made a particular point of holding up radical Islam as the real enemy of America, and underscored some its more heinous ideological planks.

Some of the most offensive features of Islamic fascist ideology are its religious intolerance, its gender apartheid, and its homophobia.

Needless to say, this was not a hallelujah moment in the ballroom. You might expect that the tension rose in the room as the man who helped glide George W. Bush to victory in 2004 by wafting on these very winds of bigotry belched from the GOP base, but instead I recall that in the room there emerged almost a collective smirk from the attendees. Not only did no one take this seriously — attacking religious pluralism, gender equality and homosexuality was this party’s bread and butter after all — but there seemed to be a sense that no one was surprised to hear this sentiment (resist the terrorists for the ways they resemble us) from Ken Mehlman.

Mehlman’s recently-revealed homosexuality has been one of those “secrets” that is not really a secret; a secret only in that he had never admitted it, but seemed to be mostly understood or at least suspected by the DC establishment. I think to many, his official outing will serve as some kind of opportunity to bridge differences between the GLBT community and the GOP, a way to make the notion of homosexuality less threatening to certain unenlightened Americans. If so, I suppose that’s a good thing.

But you will not see me congratulating Mehlman on his coming out, on his supposedly recent self-realization. He claims these days to support equal marriage rights for gays, for example, and that’s fine. Every new supporter helps the cause.

But the GLBT community and its allies owe no thanks, no support, no loyalty to Ken Mehlman. As a leader of the team that kept George W. Bush politically afloat in the middle of the decade, Mehlman bears heavy responsibility for the tactics used toward that end. Mehlman worked to re-elect a president who used the power of his office to support an anti-gay amendment to the U.S. Constitution…actually encouraging the use of the document that bestows rights upon Americans to codify bigotry. He was there when Karl Rove and company worked to place anti-gay referenda on swing state ballots in order to boost the turnout of the bigot vote.

Mehlman did nothing to stop any of this, not publicly anyway. He never spoke out or resigned in protest as anyone with any scruples or courage would have done. It would have been simple, brave, and grave for him to do so. Put aside whether or not he was personally “out” at the time. Just imagine him declaring, “I cannot be a part of a campaign that seeks to elect a U.S. president by demonizing and persecuting an unfairly maligned American minority group.”

Instead, we got a president and a party electorally buoyed, as usual, by hate of the other. As Mehlman never spoke against this, he was a coward. If Mehlman was trying to change things from the inside, he was a failure. Years spent at the very center of power, Mehlman did nothing for those who most needed his influence.

So Ken: Thanks for, precisely, nothing.

Go Ahead and Organize Your Life around Atheism

Michael De Dora has written in a recent controversial piece that, in essence, questions the wisdom of “organizing [one’s life] around atheism,” and at the same time bemoans the tone of the New Atheists in their condemnation of religion. Some have suggested I write in response to this post, and so I’ll take on both of these points separately (the part about the New Atheists will be more of a postscript)—but I think it might surprise some where I agree and disagree with De Dora.

In fact, let me just use the same quote he did to explain his position in his follow-up post:

Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society. … Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy.

Well I can’t argue with any of this on its merits. Fantastic! Let’s do this!

This tells me we’re on the same page as far as end results, what victory looks like; a world in which reason and thought and honesty are valued over myth and superstition, leading to choices uninhibited by supernaturalist dogma.

But I think what De Dora is failing to grasp is the value, perhaps the necessity, of rallying around atheism.

Yes, as De Dora makes utterly clear, atheism as a dictionary word is pretty cut-and-dried. No belief in omnipotent sky-daddies. Got it. But let’s be honest: atheism as a term is almost never used in such a narrowly literal way. As far as its common usage by actual people, it is positively loaded with deeper, more personal meaning.

And of course that meaning varies from person to person, from worldview to worldview. For many, atheism is equivalent to immorality, amorality, nihilism, and egotism. File that fact in your brain for a minute, we’ll get back to it.

Before someone thinks to “organize their lives” around atheism, they probably begin as “just atheists.” They know themselves to eschew belief in deities and other supernatural nonsense, and that’s the end of that.

But then they’re told that, as atheists, they are, therefor, any or all of the following (you ready?): immoral, amoral, nihilistic, and egotistic. Now that doesn’t feel very good, does it?

And of course, there are social consequences to having people of one’s worldview thought of in this way by either a majority or enormous pluralities of the population. You become, at worst, vilified, discriminated against, mocked, pitied, and shunned. At best, you compartmentalize it, fudge it, espouse to believe something you don’t, or simply hedge your doubt as a fuzzy form of “open-mindedness” about, oh, let’s say, “spirituality.” In other words, you lie to get by.

Now one doesn’t have to be a social scientist to see that there are parallels here to other groups who have been on the outs. Now, I don’t mean at all to say that atheists are being beaten in the streets, denied enfranchisement, or being told where they can sit on a bus. But given the studies and research thus far produced on the subject of Americans’ feelings about their atheist neighbors, I think it’s safe to say that far too many people would like to be able to treat atheists this way, or at the very least can see how it would be justified.

What am I getting at here? Atheists’ bad rap in American society is most certainly not news. But what’s important to see is that being an atheist makes one part of an identity group, whether one wants to be in one or not. To be an atheist American is to be part of a maligned minority. So when we’re talking about what it is a movement or group of activists might organize around, it’s not going to be, “I think we should be more rationalistic in shaping public policy! Storm the castle!” No, they will rally to lift up their identity group, to say that we deserve to be treated as equals, that “our kind” is not to be shoved to the back of society.

But there’s more! When we’re talking about the movements for the rights of women, African Americans, or the LGBT community, for example, we are mainly talking about civil rights—a group of people different than those who hold power (white straight men) in some physical, biological way, or perhaps in the case of the LGBT movement, biological and social. But the end is the same: stop treating us like we’re lesser, second-class citizens, stop treating us like we’re not worthy of equality. There may be some particular political or philosophical stances that come along with those movements, but I think they are largely byproducts of the struggle for rights, tools for realizing equality, things that specifically aid the communities doing the rallying (abortion and equal pay rights for women, education funding for African Americans in failing urban schools, marriage and civil partner rights for homosexuals, etc.).

For atheists, it’s different. Other than symbolic battles, like taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, atheists don’t need any laws to be passed to foster their equality. As far as the laws on the books are concerned, save for a few antiquated and unenforceable state constitutional amendments, atheists are already equal citizens. They are marginalized in ways that are unwritten, uncodified, but real and tangible. But that’s not even the main point.

For atheists rallying around their identity as atheists, it’s not enough to simply get a fair shake in the favorability polls (because, remember, there’s not much to be done in the way of atheist-equality legislation). Not only is it important for these atheists to achieve social parity, but to assert a worldview. In this way, atheists identify both as an identity group and as an interest group.

This is the good part. Because atheists have an agenda—inchoate in terms of specifics, perhaps—and a worldview to assert, they get to make this claim (or I do, anyway): to declare one’s atheism today is to make a positive assertion. It is not merely a ruling-out of God. It is not even just a ruling-out of superstition writ large. It is the positive belief in a culture (political and otherwise) that values intellect, reason, science, and, to get to the brass tacks, acknowledges reality.

And of course, those things have consequences. As Jesse Galef recently wrote, while atheism doesn’t always translate into super-specific policy positions, it does at the least tell us what we ought not base our decisions on. So in that way, atheism can seem merely like a negative assertion. But this does allow us to make decisions free of absurd, allegedly revealed, Bronze Age notions of morality, and instead base them on, yes, our reason, but perhaps just as importantly, our compassion and our own, human-invented morality.

Now that’s something to organize around: Reason, science, freedom from oppressive myth, and equality for those who have opted out of theism and supernatural belief. It’s positive. It’s growing. It’s inspiring. Let’s take De Dora’s paragraph cited above and run with it. Come on, atheists, let’s rally.

And now to his points on the New Atheists. I have written so much in defense of the New Atheism that I am loath to regurgitate it all now, so I will simply relate it to the main thesis of this post. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, and folks like PZ Myers and Ayan Hirsi Ali as well, remind us atheists that we don’t have to, as it were, take it anymore. Are they dismissive of religion? You bet, because religion is a problem, because it’s damaging, because, yes, it’s incorrect. We can get into the weeds about whether particular quotes from particular interviews or books or articles are too mean or too hurtful to the movement, and I want to have those debates. But to rally around a cause, a movement, an identity, we need those luminaries who will reject things as they have been, grab the megaphone, and wake us up. Obviously, there are still far too many drowsy secularists and would-be secularists, and I would not have the New Atheists quiet down for anything.

Parade of the Fanatical Ignoramuses

It is almost becoming a ritual in our house these days. At the end of a long day at work, the wife and I turn on MSNBC and watch, stunned, as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart put on the parade of angry right wing lunatics. We sit, mouths agape, as we see manufactured rage at town halls over something tangential to health care, we see Glenn Beck weeping over something called “oligarhy” and a whole circus of birthers, deathers, truthers, tenthers, and every other sort of “-er” you can think of (except “thinkers”). Obama is a Nazi, or a communist, or the antichrist, or the Hamburgler, or whatever.

My wife can’t stand it anymore, and is more inclined to change the channel to the new show about hoarders on A&E. But I always like to watch my friends in the liberal media take down the hypocrites, the liars, the ignorant. Besides, at first they all seemed harmless, a silly distraction, the easily-provoked getting riled up by an otherwise impotent minority party. But the more I consider what I’ve been hearing, the more I sense a more fundamental problem with an aspect of American culture, something dark.

To give you an idea, take a look at this foreboding interview with Frank Schaeffer, a former founding father of the Religious Right and now impassioned critic of wingnut zealotry.

Schaeffer calls the angry fanatics “beyond crazy,” a “fifth column of insanity,” particularly in their enmity toward Obama (the original subject of the interview), but I think that lets them off the hook. He notes that this pseudo-fundamentalist subculture is conditioned to “reject facts,” and I think that gets closer to the point. The rage and racism (more on that word in a bit) here is the result of a willful ignorance on the part of millions who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not insane, they are opting out of reality.

Schaeffer also notes that the Republican Party, languishing in the political minority, is “enthralled to this subculture,” and this is evident in the unwillingness of the more reasonable members of the party to take a stand against the hate and stupidity, as well as in the more knuckle-dragging members who dive head first into the filth, hoping to ride a mosh pit of bigotry and fear into a fixed position of consolidated power.

Which leads me, as one might guess, to Rush Limbaugh. I don’t care to simply quote mine Limbaugh to prove some kind of point about what a blowhard he is—this is like explaining that fire is hot. Instead, I want to use a recent diatribe of his as an example of exactly the kind of thing Schaeffer is talking about.

If you read any liberal-leaning blog, you already know about Limbaugh’s stupid tantrum about the white student who was beat up on a school bus by black students, in which Limbaugh belched, “We need segregated buses.”

This is revolting and offensive enough on its own, but a full reading of the transcript shows that this isn’t really what Limbaugh was getting at per se—don’t worry, I’m not defending him, because it’s really worse than you think. Limbaugh said:

It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives. We can redistribute students while we redistribute their parents’ wealth. We can redistribute everything, just return the white students to their rightful place, on their own bus with bars on the windows and armed guards—they’re racists, they get what they deserve! …

… I wonder if Obama’s going to come to the defense of the assailants like he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

It’s that term “Obama’s America” that kept haunting me as I heard this. That Rush Limbaugh and those like him harbor racist feelings and resentments is not news. But what is striking about this serving of rhetorical vomit is how it attempts to make white racism against blacks acceptable again, but uses a perversion of the phraseology of identity politics and manufactured umbrage. The important message of Limbaugh’s monologue is not “let’s bring back segregated buses,” it’s really, “You see? Black people have always been the problem!” He feels the racists have had their point proved: In Obama’s America, white kids get beat up and white men get blamed for everything, while their wealth is stolen by blacks (and gays). Another way he might have put it: “We let the blacks have a shot at being in charge, and now your kids aren’t safe from black people.”

When Obama was elected, there was a lot of fuzzy talk about the beginning of the end of racism. But Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk (and I specifically mean anyone in the Republican Party who will not totally renounce them), in what they are telling their stupid followers, are showing us the opposite—they’re trying to make the case that it’s okay to be racist again, because Obama is a Nazi/communist/black nationalist/foreigner/racist/Muslim/antichrist. You were right all along, these inexcusably abhorrent men tell their anti-intellectual swarms, so it’s okay to take this president down.

Frank Schaeffer said something else that is spot on, that we can’t “reorganize village life to suit the village idiot.” But we do have to wake the village up, assemble a legitimate town meeting, and make sure everyone knows that the village idiot has formed a posse, and it’s headed this way.

Elizabeth Dole and the GOP Tell Me to Go to Hell

My day was flat out ruined by a political ad.

I’m very passionate about politics to begin with, but usually if a political ad upsets me it’s in the direction of worry (”this is gonna kill us!”) or rage (”that’s a filthy lie!”). But this ad ruined my day because it made me feel a certain emotion in a way I don’t think I had before.

Offense.

People throw that term around pretty loosely in politics these days. If I were to summarize the 2008 presidential election, I don’t think I’d be too far off if I described it as a competition to see which campaign could take more “offense” at the other.

“That was sexist! How dare you?”

“You accused me of racism! That’s the race card! How dare you?”

Etcetera.

But the offense I’m talking about is the kind that really inflames the kind of anger that is one of the ingredients for cohesion in (I cringe at this term) identity politics. This offense is not the false umbrage of Geraldine Ferraro or Carly Fiorina, but the kind that emerges when a statement is made that explicitly says that one group of people is not welcome in America, that associating with them is an example of a flaw in one’s character. Of course, I’m not talking about associations with people who are legitimately questionable (had Barack Obama actually been a member of the Weather Underground, for example, I could see people having reservations). I’m talking about a group of Americans that is vilified even though they are law-abiding, decent, thoughtful citizens.

We’re familiar with this kind of bigotry in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. In all cases, it is obviously unacceptable, and more to the point, an example of willful ignorance and/or maleficence on the part of the person advocating for exclusion. What we never talk about, though, is prejudice against people with no religion.

Having made some minor rumblings about this a couple of months ago, the reelection campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have released ads on TV and the web attacking Democratic challenger Kay Hagan for the most unforgivable of sins: consorting with atheists.

Here is the Dole campaign’s ad. Watch and then keep reading below.

Kay Hagan is upset mainly because the ad implies that she is an atheist, which she certainly is not, and is right to be upset at this misrepresentation. I am upset because the ad implies that because I am an atheist, I am someone who no self-respecting public figure should ever come in contact with. In other words, as then-candidate George H.W. Bush said in 1987, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

In my stomach-sickening anger after seeing this ad (and then later the NRSC’s web ad which displays the word “Godless” in smeary, blood-red letters), I wondered why we see so little of this kind of attack, accusing one’s opponent of being an atheist (of course, Obama is being compared to Karl “Religion-is-the-Opiate-of-the-Masses” Marx). Of course, the answer is that there are essentially no atheists in public life. Why is that? The unspoken religious test that disqualifies all atheists from serving in public office (unspoken until, of course, these ads).

There are two exceptions, of course, that I know of. Rep. Pete Stark of California is a non-believing Unitarian, and there is a Nebraska state legislator named Ernie Chambers who is also an atheist (and attempted to sue God, who did not show up for his court date despite calls of “come out, come out, wherever you are”). I know nothing about local Nebraska politics, so I have to chalk Mr. Chambers’ election up to a quirk of the region, and Rep. Stark has been serving in Congress for 18 terms, and only revealed his godlessness to his very liberal constituency last year.

The point is that it’s nearly impossible to accuse public figures of atheism if atheists are not allowed out in public.

Of course, there remains bigotry toward women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and people of faith. In these cases, however, it is now the mainstream position that this kind of prejudice is not okay, and any manifestation of this bigotry must be done covertly, with code, and hints, and innuendo. For atheists, however, a group differentiated only in their utilization of reason over superstition, are not allowed within this political force field. The Dole campaign and the Republican Party have made it clear that it is still okay to express open bigotry and hate toward atheists.

Or is it? These ads are relatively new, and Dole and the Senate Republicans are desperate. Perhaps there is still time for wiser voices in our political discourse to call this what it is: baseless discrimination and unwarranted prejudice.

I have little hope, but I have some. When Mitt Romney gave his semi-famous “religion speech” during the Republican primaries, he made two notable statements: “Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me,” and most notably, made the starkly definitive statement, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Much to my surprise, major media figures such as Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos pressed Romney and his campaign as to whether Romney meant to explicitly exclude atheists from “freedom,” citizenship, or less importantly, his friendship. Romney, notably, walked his words back, and allowed a begrudging place for atheists in America. Thanks, Mitt.

But as of now, the ire against Dole and her pals is all focused on misrepresenting Hagan’s religion, with little about how the ads spit on nonreligious Americans, treat them like criminals, and declare them unacceptable in American society.

So I’m experiencing a small taste of offense in the way that I expect many other oppressed groups have experienced it. Of course, no one is locking me up, telling me where I can drink from a fountain, where I can sit on a bus, or keeping me from voting. But now I am more certain than ever that if many people had their way, they would.