Beta Culture: Movement Cuckoos

cuckooI’ve said many times that every time atheists put up a billboard or other public display, they should absolutely expect it will be vandalized, and should set up cameras to record the vandals in the act. Anytime we think “billboard,” we should also think “vandalism preparation.”

It’s probably impossible to prevent the vandalism, but we could start a YouTube video collection to argue that nice Christians vandalize atheists’ property about a thousand times more often than evil atheists target Christian properties.

But I really want to talk about something else at the moment. Rather than enemies and backpressure forces outside the atheist movement, I want to talk about enemies WITHIN atheism. Or indeed, within any new organized social movement.

You’re probably aware of the European cuckoo, a “brood parasite” which lays its eggs in the nests of other species of birds. It’s a pretty creepy little bastard, actually. After the cuckoo chick hatches, it shoves the smaller eggs or nestlings out to die, and then obliges the hapless instinct-drive parent birds — which can be a fraction its size — to feed it to adulthood.

I bring it up to make a point about movements, which is this: Every movement or social justice organization which presents any sort of challenge to the status quo — or, indeed, a new idea of any sort — will inevitably end up with cuckoos. Or so I suspect.

The FBI in the J. Edgar Hoover era was notorious for infiltrating all sorts of organizations. The civil rights movement, anti-war protesters, environmental movement, hell even major political parties, had FBI plants within them, gathering information and sometimes actively sabotaging the movement from the inside.

Some years back, I had an extended conversation with an undercover cop, a massively-muscled man covered in tattoos, who’d spent more than two years inside a motorcycle gang. He worked his way into the post of second-in-command, not only gathering incriminating evidence, but assisting in, and even instigating, criminal acts. (The personal price of it, he said, had been damned high, as he necessarily alienated himself from his wife and children, but also because he developed a great deal of sincere liking for the men he would later betray.)

I watched the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement gather momentum and then diminish into apparent insignificance, a progression helped along by people I suspect were cuckoos. At a major demonstration in Washington DC, a drum circle sprang up, an extended effort that did nothing more than vigorously and monotonously bang on drums, but which disrupted and destroyed the thrust of the movement.

I’m not CERTAIN these weren’t all well-meaning drum enthusiasts, there to present their own attention-getting version of protest, but the fact that they could not be moved to stop leads me to think some part of the incursion was deliberately staged. Add in this data point from the linked Gawker article:

Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.

A plant sent there by the FBI/Wall Street/some other government agency? It’s not all that hard to believe, is it? Yes, this is a conspiracy theory, but … conspiracies do exist. If you don’t believe that, in the age of tobacco and petroleum, Fox News and the GOP, you haven’t been paying attention.

Cuckoos don’t necessarily arise from enemy camps. They can spontaneous spring up from within the roll of faithful members, and perhaps completely unintentionally create major rifts in the solidarity of the movement.

The atheist movement was early-on a very friendly club of people discovering the pleasures of freethought and reveling in the newfound freedom to think and express themselves. I was one of those early celebrants, writing and commenting variously in Yahoo chat rooms, on my own GoatOnFire and Hank Fox blogs, on Unscrewing the Inscrutable, in my book Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, and finally on FreeThought Blogs, taking a rather meek place alongside PZ Myers, Ed Brayton and other notables. The excitement of atheist solidarity eventually led to the first Reason Rally, and I never felt so HOME as on that one drizzly day in Washington DC.

And then Atheism-Plus came along. The idea was atheism PLUS social justice causes. I was already working on my concept of Beta Culture, and didn’t immediately jump in, but I was sympathetic at least as far as not offering vocal opposition.

I wanted to believe in it. I disagreed somewhat with atheist purists whose response to Atheism-Plus was pointedly negative, insisting that atheism was this ONE thing — atheism — and nothing else. One FTB blogger responded with the equally pointed “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” In my view, that statement was the tipping point for creating a major rift within the movement, where we became “these atheists” and “those atheists,” rather than just “atheists.” FTB was suddenly presented with a seeming tidal wave of hate — not from religionists, but from other atheists.

Add in the fact that the major fraction of Atheism-Plus was an aggressive feminism which came to actively target other atheist bloggers — I got to see this from the inside at FTB, and I can tell you it could be nasty as hell (I seem to recall one astonishing declaration that no man should speak or write about feminism unless a woman was present, essentially to check his work!) — and we soon had a situation where you couldn’t be an atheist in good standing unless you were FIRST an ardent feminist. You might agree on every point in the feminist cant, and yet become an enemy with a single “wrong” word. And whoo! They would COME AFTER YOU.

I talked to other bloggers and commenters around the atheist web, and eventually had something like a dozen writers who said they would never again engage with the issue of feminism, because the price of making a mistake — which, again, could hinge on a single, often deliberately-misinterpreted, word — was too high.

Cuckoos. Feminists in the atheist nest, shoving out other atheists. It certainly worked on me! I moved to Patheos and largely stopped reading FTB, because I couldn’t bear all the heat and light of victim-feminism. (I find it interesting that Ed Brayton, one of the founders of FTB, also eventually joined Patheos, possibly for much the same reason I did.)

[ Side Note: Typically, any male blogger who addressed feminism in any even slightly critical way would preface every post with immense protestations of agreement and solidarity with the feminist cause. But I’m not going to do that for two reasons: 1) It never helped. You could be 99.95% in favor of women’s rights, equality, safety and choice, but that 0.05% disagreement would bring attacks which could be literally vicious. And 2) If you don’t know me by now … eh. Go read some other blog. ]

In the end, I think I have to agree with the atheist purists.  Social justice issues, no matter how greatly worth pursuing on their own, dilute and poison the ATHEIST movement when they are shoved in as part of it.

But to conclude with what is really my main point: Too often, those of us working toward progressive social or political goals are naively unprepared for the sophistication of opposition, or even the fact of it. Some level of opposition will likely come from outside, but it can also come from inside and be no less destructive.

But just as with the strategy suggested for atheist billboards (go into it with the absolute expectation of vandalism), every social justice movement should START with the expectation of aggressive, often deceptive, opposition and consider how to deal with it.

Definitely expect opposition from outside, but don’t neglect the possibility of enemies of internal origin — cuckoos — and plan some sort of approach to their potential arrival.