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.

 

When We All Grow Up

adults2Every major change in life — and probably a lot of the minor ones — is accompanied by something I call Turbulence.

New job, turbulence. New baby, turbulence. Loss of a loved one, MAJOR turbulence.

It’s that period of discomfort and confusion that happens between one steady life state and another. Eventually you get used to new conditions of life — the new job is as familiar and comfortable as the old one — but meanwhile, you suffer the bumpy ride of the necessary transition.

I bring up Turbulence because I think we’re in it, society-wide, worldwide, right now. I suppose the people of every era feel their discomforts, but this one is a one-of-a-kind, first-ever-in-history discomfort, the sign of a BIG transition.

I’m thinking about Humanity on Planet Earth, and the changes in store for us, major ones, some of which are already taking place. What will be the end result of those changes? Where are we going?

Up til now it’s like we’ve been living through the human species’ childhood, where we could explore and play and fight and kill and burn and break and do pretty much anything we pleased, without any very serious repercussions. We could reproduce without limit, experiment with weird beliefs, exotic ways of living, silly fantastic ideas, and see what happened. All the while, we were rich enough in room and resources that our failures made only local differences. We could try out this thing and that thing and the other thing, and no matter how much we broke or burned, we could just walk away from the wreckage and try something new.

But there’s that time to come when we won’t be doing that stuff anymore. The time when we will practice restraint and finally become grownups, comfortable with ourselves and with life on Earth, living more or less gracefully and successfully, into the indefinite future.

I don’t say we’re GOING to make it. But if we do, it will be because we did this other thing, and so became able to survive. It’s like our doctor has said “Your heart is laboring, your liver is shot, your cholesterol if through the roof and your diabetes is getting worse. You’re going to lose 100 pounds or you’re going to die in a matter of months. There is no third choice.”

In the only good future imaginable, in the single survivable scenario, we change. Non-change, or half-assed change, will bring either extinction or something few of us today would want to live through.

The in-between time, the turbulence-riddled NOW, is our teen years. We’re still experimenting, playing and fighting and stumbling and living our rich fantasy lives, but with global warming, Peak Oil, so many other real-life realities being forced upon us, we’re discovering we can’t do just anything. Not forever. We’re finding out some things have uncomfortable, even deadly, results, both to ourselves and to the planet. We’re living in the midst of the transition from carefree childhood to … something.

I’m thinking about that “something” — the full adulthood of humanity, hanging out there in some hopefully not-too-distant future.

What will things be like when the human species is all grown up? What will be necessary? What will be necessarily avoided? How will we live? How will we relate to Planet Earth, and each other?

Humanity’s adulthood is a way off, sadly, and none of us will live to see it. It’s going to require generational changes; more than a few generations will be necessary before a critical mass of grownups appears on the world scene. The lot of us are unfortunately stuck back here in adolescence.

Doesn’t mean we can’t speculate. The fine details of that era are impossible to guess at — there will be arts and careers, entertainments, technology, unimaginable to us today — but I think we can predict something of the bigger picture, because some conclusions are pretty much unavoidable.

There’s a lot of stuff we simply can’t afford, or afford to do, anymore. For instance, we won’t be using fossil fuels in that future, because most of them will just be gone. Used up by we human children in a burning, partying, indulgent spree.

And some things, we just have to hope will be a part of the picture, because otherwise, that future won’t be anything those of us today could enjoy.

So here are some of my guesses about what it will mean for us to be sane and successful grownups on Planet Earth.

Population and Energy

First, like I said, we’re going to give up petroleum, and maybe even nuclear energy. Solar’s the way to go. Everything in our adult future will be powered by the sun.

Or yes, some “might be” futury energy source. But having gotten to 2016 with no sign of widely-available flying cars, which I’ve been reading about since the 1950s, I’m not counting on the rescue of out-of-the-blue science-fictiony solutions. I’d love to see fusion power perfected, but a question I’ve asked myself over the years is: What if it’s just not possible? What if it takes an actual star to keep a fusion reaction going? I’d like to see the research continue, but I don’t think it’s something we can count on.

There are going to be a lot fewer of us. Idiot optimists notwithstanding, Planet Earth just can’t support 7 or 8 or 12 billion humans. My guess is that somewhat less than a billion humans, maybe only a few hundred million, can live on the planet without eventually eating it down to bedrock. And why would we want more? If there are resources enough to allow 500 million people to live like royalty, or 12 billion people to live like slaves, cramped and poor, what good argument is there for NOT living comfortably within our means?

The question for me — and I think grownups in the human future — isn’t “Do people have the right to have as many kids as they want?”, it’s “Do children have the right to be born into a family, or a world, that can support them?” Note that I’m not saying some draconian governmental edict will come along and nix human population growth. I’m saying the real world will enforce some sort of solution, either voluntary on the part of Homo Adultus, or involuntary via any of a number of mass die-off scenarios.

There will be fewer of us.  How we get there is up to conscious decisions by us might-be grownups, or due to the already-in-progress default course set by the equivalent of idiot teenagers refusing to accept responsibility in a world of real consequences.

Education and Equality

We have to have full equality of every human, everywhere on the planet. Everyone has to have the right to vote, to medical care, to an education.

Speaking of education, we’re going to stop treating our kids like they’re children, and start treating them as if they’re going to be fellow adults expected to shoulder the load of making the world work. We’re going to give every one of them a full, free education — which we will expect them to actually work at and benefit from — up to and including college or trade school.

Speaking of medical care, we’re going to live a lot longer than we do now. Think about it: What’s the real goal of the field of medicine? To cure everything. Pretty much every disease is going down, and life extension will become a major focus of research. Because what is aging but just another disease? The end result of that research is going to BE life extension. How much? I like to think it would be well into the hundred-and-somethings.

Environment

We’re going to learn to live on Planet Earth without damaging it. Our smaller population will allow us to abandon large areas and allow them to go back to nature. We’ll have a reverence for life, with absolute protection of endangered species with no regard to national borders. Those mountain gorillas, for instance, are not Africa’s mountain gorillas, they’re everybody’s (and nobody’s) mountain gorillas, and we’ll feel they must be protected no matter what.

Society

We’re going to stop tolerating lies. One of the things we haven’t yet understood is that Freedom of Speech has to have this other freedom attached to it, Freedom From Lies. Every person (and corporation) has the right to say whatever they want to say, but that freedom is limited by every OTHER person’s right to hear the truth.

I can lie to you in person and you and I will deal with that privately, but on public airwaves or wires, where millions might hear and be adversely affected by it, there can be no “right” to lie, to incite others to believe falsehoods, and the penalties will be severe.

Lying is a form of pollution, when you think about it. Lies are a poison that destroys human understanding of the truth. It’s like secondhand smoke — when the lies flow over your metaphorical property line and into my life, your right to lie has ended.

(In my view, there is already no right to lie to a child, about any subject or for any reason.)

We’re going to have a common language. English? Probably. Doesn’t mean all the others will go away. Does mean we’re going to talk to each other, all over Earth, in this common language.

We’re going to have a LOT more public transportation, a lot fewer cars. We’re going to spend a LOT less money on wars and weapons.

We’re going to end racism and sexism. Skin color is about the stupidest, most superficial way of judging people, and we — all of us — will eventually realize that. As to sexism, we’ll eliminate the prejudices and limitations based on gender, but we’re also going to accept that men and women each have their own specific needs, and figure that more into the balance.

Our lives are going to be a lot more transparent, but we’re also going to become a lot more comfortable with our own nature and the inevitable foibles which attend it.

We’re going to come to understand that not all cultures and cultural practices are equal. That some are good for human freedom and dignity, some are simply not, and we’re going to abandon the not-goods. Speaking of which:

Religion

We’re going to do away with religion and mysticism. Goodbye Islam — don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. But also: Goodbye Christianity — don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Schools will teach evolution with gusto, and every kid will grow up knowing he’s connected as family to all life on Earth. The idea of the universe being poofed into existence by a great big guy in the sky is going to seem like a fairy tale straight out of the Dark Ages.

We’re going to end genital mutilation of babies. Sorry Jews and Muslims, snip off the end of your own dick if you want, cut out your own clitoris once you’ve achieved the age of choice, but you can’t do that to kids anymore. They don’t BELONG to you, they belong to the adults they will one day become, and it’s that adult — and only that adult — who has the right to choose to make permanent changes to their bodies. You would no more cut healthy body parts off a baby than you would install garish permanent tattoos on their bodies. In both cases, it’s a trespass on THEIR right to choose.

We’re going to stop being ouchy about sex education for young people. Every kid on Earth is going to receive the full, unaltered Handbook of the Human Body in classes taught from kindergarten onward.

Business and Politics

We’re going to push corporations out of the driver’s seat of government. We’re going to end tax evasion by corporations and the wealthy, and the huge income inequality that flows out of corporate culture. In the coming era of transparency — particularly in international banking — I suspect most organized crime is going to go away.

Science and Technology

We’re going to use space, but probably not move into it. The minimum necessary life support system for humans is probably the size of a planet, and we only know of one. We’ll have robots out there, or humans for short periods, but we’re never going to have humans like you and I living on other planets.

Every person on Earth is going to have full, unfettered access to the Internet, and they will carry it around with them.

It’s almost inevitable that we’ll tinker with our own genes, improving ourselves in countless ways and ushering in an age of transhumanism. Not everyone will change, but everyone will have the chance. Overall, average intelligence is going to go up — we’re going to be a lot smarter.

Speaking of intelligence, we’re going to have Artificial Intelligence. It’s not going to be just like us, but one way or another it’s going to exist. It’s also going to be friendly, an intellectual partner rather than some horror-story master or adversary.

How?

I doubt that nations will go away. Local units of government are better at handling local issues. But a worldwide community of individuals — and yes, I’m thinking Beta Culture — who agree that certain things must happen can make those things happen. Not by undercutting government, but by convincing a critical mass of people in each country that certain things — women’s equality, for instance, but also all this other stuff — absolutely must happen.

Here’s hoping.

COWs

I started thinking of myself as a Citizen of the World some years back, and I’ve even thought there should be an organization. But strangely, I’ve felt shy about publicizing the idea, for fear that someday I’d be subject to revocation of my American citizenship by some zealot with power. Perverse to the COW concept, though, I’m also rather proud to be an American. Just being associated with this particular philosophical experiment is rather cool.

[—> Just to be clear to anyone in government who might read this later, no, shithead, I’m not renouncing my citizenship. I was born in Texas, I’m proud to be an American, I vote, I pay taxes, I drive a Chevy truck, I support the American government and the Second Amendment, I shed tears when I see an American flag, I intend to stay a proud American until the day I die, paying taxes and voting until I’m as senile as Ronald Reagan. I ride horses with good American WESTERN saddles and not those sissy English ones.

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The Range of Permissible Acts

Say you’ve picked out a private kindergarten for your little girl, and you’ve gone down to take a look at the place to check on a last few details.

During the hourlong tour and consultation, you ask “What are the classroom rules here at Bronfield Academy? What will be expected of my daughter while she’s actually in class?”

“Ah,” says the director. “Glad you asked, because we’ve got a list of the rules we send home for each new student before the term begins. Let me get you a copy of that. Yes, here we are.”

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Lonely Words

Here’s something I’ll bet you never considered before:

We have a lot of words in common usage, and I mean a LOT of them, a whole specialized vocabulary, that refers to things that don’t actually exist.

So there’s a word for the thing, but no thing for the word.

Fairy. Werewolf. Ghost. Bigfoot. Vampire. Channeling. Telepathy. Telekinesis. Clairvoyance. Goblin. Teleportation. Afterlife. Leprechaun. Zombie. Valhalla. Hell. God.

There are multi-word terms in the same vein: Spirit guide. Trance medium. Guardian angel. Mutant powers.

Knowing this, and knowing that there was a time when I DIDN’T know it, I think that’s a fairly profound problem.

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Triple-Filtered Crazy

[ Another long one. Sorry. ]

Sanity has a horizon.

Meaning: Everything you and I do seems sensible to us. Everything other people do seems sensible to them. But not everything you and I do seems sensible to others, and not everything others do seems sensible to you and I.

Everything you and I do seems sensible, of course, because it’s US, and we’re caught up in the subjective immediacy of our lives. We’re inside our own horizon, and everything inside it with us is visible, understandable and comfortable. We naturally find it hard to think of ourselves as wrong or villainous or insane. Everything we do, however weird it might seem to others, seems sane and reasonable to us. Even if we don’t know the reasons, we’re prone to automatically assume SOMEONE knows, and those reasons must be good ones.

On the other hand, other people, out past our own personal horizons of sanity, often do things that seem crazy.

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A Time in the Heart

Robin

Robins look … well, silly. They stand on the grassy verge with heads upraised, stock still for indefinite periods like little feathered statues, than drop down and make lightning-fast dashes to some other part of the lawn. Where they again stand still for an unpredictable while.

And despite all the press they get in songs and stories, they’re not even all that pretty. An unattractive dull gray body, ugly yellowish bill. Okay, they do have that red breast thing going for them, but it’s not even really red, is it? More of a reddish brown. And when you live in a place where brilliant scarlet cardinals regularly visit your back deck – not to mention equally colorful blue jays, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, and several kinds of red-accented woodpeckers – robins are pretty tame fare.

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Curiosity Question

Suppose there was a way to make other people think like you?

Imagine a drug you could hand out that, with regular doses over a period of time, would cause other people to agree with you in every way. A drug that would cause them to be UNABLE, mostly, to disagree with you.

1) Would you give it to your kids?

2) Would you give it to your friends?

3) Would you give it to friends without telling them what it was but saying it would be good for them?

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Why Not Be Nice?

[ Argh. My newer version of WordPress has controls for placing an image, but they DON’T SEEM TO WORK. Until I figure them out, we’ll have to live with the non-existence of text wrap. I say again: Argh. ]

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Comment-volleying on a blog with one of those people I refer to as a “nice Christian” – the people who project kindness and understanding as their motivation, all the while ripping your metaphorical guts out (“There’s no such thing as atheism! It just doesn’t make SENSE!”) – I stepped away from the subject of the debate for a moment, for the benefit of the other rationalist commenters, and addressed the interaction itself.

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The Goodness of Atheism

atheism.jpgI got one of those Nigerian email scams. I’d guess it was about number 50, or maybe it was 75.

I’ve been thinking for several days about two very different views of atheism. One is from the godder side, where atheists are consciously evil, and want to hurt people and destroy things. The other …

Well, read the email first.

DEAR BELOVED IN CHRIST,

Yeah, the whole thing is in capital letters. I’ll spare you by translating it into something less shouty. I’m leaving in the typographical errors and misspellings, but I’m fixing the weird line breaks and large number of extra spaces sprinkled throughout.

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