Tuesday, September 14, 2010

French Government Unveils Threat to Freedom

As an atheist, I find the Pope's hat silly, the do-nothing Saturdays of Orthodox Judaism to be counter-productive, those magical Mormon underpants to be downright ridiculous, the fabricated Church of Scientology to be science fiction, and the Islamic dress code highly restrictive.  I would openly criticize any of these practices and have no plans to adopt them into my life.  However, I wouldn't so much as raise a finger to make any of these practices illegal and in fact would defend them were the U.S. Government to propose banning any of them.  I understand that in order to be free to live as the Godless person I am, I must allow others to be free - even if people like Rabbi Daniel Lapin believe that all atheists are "parasites" because "they benefit from society but contribute nothing to it" (source).  I defend the Rabbi's right to make such inflammatory generalizations.  And I'm free to say, "fuck him."

In France, freedom of religious worship is under attack - veiled by the guise of "secular foundations" and "national values."  Today, the French Senate has passed a total ban on "the burqa-style Islamic veil on public streets and other places" (source).  As someone who espouses a morality with secular foundations, I find this deeply alarming and would urge other non-believers to consider my position carefully.

Caught wearing a veil in France?
That's a 150 Euro fine, Mademoiselle. 
I find manifestations of Islamic law to be deeply counter-productive to freedom and equality, not the least of which being stoning women to death for adultery.  Is this really demanded by the Quran?  Does the Bible call for the stoning of infidels, homosexuals, and heretics?  It is clear that these books are open to interpretation, which is what makes them especially dangerous in the hands of the powerful.  But all that is immaterial because secular law recognizes that a particular religious dogmatism is not grounds for capital punishment (which I am universally against, but that's another post).

The struggle for fundamentalist Islam to integrate in Europe is well-documented and ongoing; conflicts from building code violations for minarets to refusal of a Muslim woman to unveil at security checkpoints are becoming increasingly common.  Is the Islamic call to prayer over loudspeaker at the crack of dawn a public disturbance when most non-Muslims are trying to sleep?  Should non-Muslims wear ear plugs or should Muslims keep their outdoor prayers to a speaking voice between dusk and dawn?  Often, the best solution between "community standards" and "individual liberty" is not clear.  But in this recent case in France, I believe the circumstances are unequivocal: whatever we think of a woman who - in a country with a secular government - chooses to wear a burqa, it indeed must be her choice and remain free from government intervention.  She is harming no one, in any way, by wearing a burqa.  The assertion of "national values" is a fantasy of collectivism; any civilized modern society should recognize cultural pluralism.

With a French Senate vote of 246 to 1, it would appear as though this issue isn't even controversial in France.  "National values," apparently, exclude a certain style of dress.  What's next?  Language?  Culinary preparation?  It is estimated that less than 2,000 women would be affected.  Yet when it comes to personal freedom, the role of government is to uphold the rights of the minority even in opposition to a widespread majority.  This is not private property where one can simply elect not to visit, these are public streets in which wearing a veil will be a crime.  As with all laws that infringe on civil liberties, this one will have unintended consequences beyond Islam:

  • What if I want to wear a veil because I recently underwent surgery or had a debilitating accident?
  • What if I am wearing a costume or wish to demonstrate and use this veil as a form of protest?
  • Heck, what if I simply don't feel like showing my face while walking down the streets of Avignon?

Under this proposed law (which now has one month to be reviewed by a special group of bureaucrats calling themselves the "Constitutional Council"), all of these reasons would ostensibly be outlawed, as well.  Indeed, no reason should be necessary for one to dress however they please.  While I would go as far as to make a case for public nudity, I would at least hope that - on the opposite end of the spectrum - free individuals can choose how much of themselves they wish to cover in public.

The best case one might be able to make for this very bad law comes from a well-meaning Muslim woman from Algiers:
"How can we allow the burqa here and at the same time fight the Taliban and all the fundamentalist groups across the world?" said the president of Neither Whores nor Submissives, Sihem Habchi. "I'm Muslim and I can't accept that because I'm a woman I have to disappear."
While her point about oppressive Islamic regimes such as the Taliban are well-taken, what Sihem Habchi fails to comprehend is that this law effectively targets Muslim women and subjugates them in exactly the same way but in the opposite direction.  One "primitive" society mandates that women wear a burqa, another "enlightened" society mandates that women cannot wear a burqa.  Until governments respect a woman's right to choose (in this and many other areas), these are merely coercive means to different ends.

I believe in secular values and would be greatly pleased to wake up tomorrow and find that religious dogmatism, from the divine totalitarianism of the pedophile-protecting Catholic Church to the misogynistic practices of Sharia law, has disappeared from the social landscape.  Nonetheless, such an outcome can only be achieved through moral means - those which are free from violence or threats of violence (which all government law essentially represents).  To legislate a mandatory dress code - be it a theocratic or secular one - is antithetical to the path toward liberty.  France's proposed law should upset us all.

Because first they came for the veiled women, but I said nothing because I'm not a veiled woman...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Le Sexoflex - Twincest

From time to time, I just have to highlight some of the more memorable and irreverent content I find online.  Given that this video has been vastly under-viewed (a mere 1,300 in the past 3 months), I simply must showcase it.  Where else can one find a music video that combines homosexuality, incest, pixel art, and embroidery?  Shockingly brilliant.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fundamentalists, Free Speech, and You

There is an old Chinese curse that goes something like, "may you live in interesting times" (source).  This blog is predicated upon the notion that we have indeed been afflicted by this ancient proverb.  Few issues bring forth the preponderance of surreal ideological juxtaposition than the 9/11/2001 terror attack in New York City does.

Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center
 in Gainesville, Florida
Take just one example among many: Christian Evangelical Pastor Terry Jones and his forthcoming "Burn a Koran Day," being held on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 WTC attacks (source).  Online and in person, I have defended this pastor's right to burning the Islamic holy book, as it is protected speech.  Indeed, as core "political speech," courts have held that such a demonstration deserves the highest protection.  While the burn permit for this protest has been refused by the city of Gainesville, I would also argue that, so long as the Qurans and the site are lawfully owned, the property owner has a right to burn these books regardless of local bureaucratic opposition.  Of course, I might also argue that the burning of any book, a favorite activity of churches over the centuries (source), is almost inherently counter-productive and flatly anti-intellectual.  But that is just reason #1680 as to why I am an anti-theist.  I am willing to criticize book-burning in general but nonetheless defend the right of any individual or group to burn any book.

The debate on issues like this quickly leave the legal orbit of what is Constitutional and float around aimlessly into what is "moral" - which of course is up for rhetorical grabs.  To be sure, this makes for a much more interesting (albeit less defined) debate, inviting many subtle positions on the issue.  Concepts such as religious tolerance, hate speech, Sharia Law, Biblical truth, the oft-repeated conservative "Christian Nation" mantra, and ecumenical values of effete liberals are tossed about.  In the end, it is unlikely that anyone's mind is really going to be changed as a result.  While the television camera can capture light more easily than heat, issues like this seem to generate the exact opposite.

In Afghanistan: protest ignited by a proposed protest.
Pastor Jones now carries a .40-caliber pistol for his own safety, having been advised by the FBI that such a demonstration will generate foreseeable danger for the Pastor's personal safety.  He claims to have received over 100 death threats already, and I have no reason to doubt this.  What if only 1% of these 100 people make good on this threat?  There is little surprise that Pastor Jones is working from his deep conviction in his own imaginary God rather than rational self-preservation.  When your chief role model is a martyred man, born of a virgin and who rose from the dead, any delusional action is possible.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is attempting to minimize the perception that Pastor Jones and his followers represent mainstream American views toward Islam.  A demonstration in Kabul has already been held protesting the upcoming event (recall that "Burn a Koran Day" is itself a protest) (source).  Yes, this protest included the burning of a Pastor Jones effigy as well as the American Flag (friendly reminder: this is also Constitutionally-protected activity).  As General David Petraeus hinted, "Burn a Koran Day" is likely to further endanger U.S. troops occupying Afghanistan and Iraq (source).  But then again, if men with guns were setting up military checkpoints in your country and killing your neighbors with Predator Drones, any excuse will do...

Free speech is a sacred concept in the project for civilization, and one that is poorly-understood in many circles of the world.  The notion that "you don't have a right not to be offended" is, despite the frank parlance, a complex idea.  Respecting the right to expression of those one disagrees with can be downright difficult, yet defending their freedom to express such views is paramount - even and especially around a controversial subject matter such as religion.  Pastor Jones' actions may be ill-advised but I will nonetheless defend his right to burn Harry Potter books, the Quran, or the flag of his choice.  So long as this is his property, it is none of our business what he does with it.

A decommissioned missile that "Ground Zero Mosque"
protesters are driving around the proposed
Islamic community center site
Which is why, for the exact same reason, I believe the Park51 Project (woefully mis-characterized as the "Ground Zero Mosque") should be defended by all liberty-loving people of the world.  This Islamic community center, which includes a 9/11 memorial and is two blocks away from the World Trade Center site, is private property which has been legally obtained by the Cordoba Initiative at an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory building (source).  And forget what Fox News is ginning up about "terrorist money" being used to fund this site; this is inflammatory nonsense and further none of our business because private organizations have no obligation to disclose their financial records to city governments.

That one would object to the demonstration against the Quran or the construction of the Islamic community center is the central problem.  It would seem that, all too often, people are inclined to support free speech they support and rally against the expression of ideas they disagree with.  Perhaps it is the visceral reaction to an opposing point of view, perhaps it is the insecurity one might feel about their own views that they would wish to prevent competition in the marketplace of ideas.  Simply put: the most civilized act any American can do is respect the private property rights of the Cordoba Initiative in lower Manhattan; the most thoughtful response any Muslim can have to Pastor Terry Jones is respect his right to freedom of expression.

In response to its publication, Muslims inevitably
proved this cartoon's point by blowing things up!
So why is this much easier said than done?  Two words: religious dogmatism.  Islam clearly has a deep cultural problem in the West; many Muslims wish to enjoy the liberty of a pluralistic society but often cannot tolerate criticism of their own faith.  The 2005 Danish cartoon controversy illustrates this problem more dramatically than any other (source).  While many Islamic leaders regularly criticize Western culture (including dress, music, secular government, and the liberty of women generally), criticism of Islam itself sets off a powder keg of violence - (not so) ironically best illustrated by the cartoon in question.  While the publication of this cartoon in  Jyllands-Posten did harm to no one (except for violating that imaginary "right not to be offended"), offended Muslims were responsible for the death of over 100 across the Middle East and massive destruction of embassies, businesses, and other forms of "Western Imperialism."  Sure, Christians were upset when Andres Serrano dunked a crucifix in urine (source)... but at least no one died.

Christ is pissed!
The fountainhead of this animosity, against Muslims and Christians alike, is rooted in the divisive nature of religious fundamentalism itself.  And by that, I really mean religion itself, because "religious moderation" effectively amounts to diluting the acidic bath of dogmatism with some neutralizing secular values and reasoned discourse.  These Holy Books are themselves fundamentally at odds and with irreconcilable differences to one another.  Pastor Terry Jones understands this better than most; he is convinced "Islam is of the Devil" (source).  Surely nothing less would compel him to risk his life in demonstrating this.  Similarly, Sayyid Qutb, cited by many as the intellectual father of radical Islamic Jihad and its modern outgrowth in the form of Al Qaeda, drew his disdain for Western culture from his own faith (source).

Anyone watching this clash of ideologies unfolding from Mars would rightly conclude that mixing 1st Century beliefs with 21st Century weaponry is a recipe for the end of human life on Earth.

So what solution is there, then, when the liberal democratic values of free speech are trumped by deep religious division?  Unrepentant non-believer Christopher Hitchens argues that "the taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization" (source).  So long as the shared values of liberty are undermined by the sacred cows of religious dogmatism, he argues, such controversies will continue to escalate to violence - believed to have been sanctioned by "God" / "Allah."  Hitchens writes:
"Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present."
It should be instructive that the most vocal and violent opposition (source) to the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan are from Christians and that Christian Pastor Terry Jones is organizing "Burn a Koran Day."  It should also be of little surprise that no single act prompts more violence by Muslims than a demonstration against Islam.  So long as anyone is admonished to uncritically support religious faith - being such engines of division and brutality, and so long as criticism of faith (Islam, Christianity, or any other stripe of irrational dogmatism) prompts death threats and intimidation, freedom and liberty are threatened for everyone.  While "militant atheism" is a popular term of derision for Hitchens and other outspoken secularists like him, the genuine militant barbarism - directed against mind and body - is that of theism.

So let us all draw Mohammed (source), let us all be De-Baptized (source), and let us all remember that we share a single, fragile planet and needn't delude ourselves with religious fantasies any longer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

End Prohibition ... of Prostitution

The recent controversy over Craigslist's removal of "adult services" has raised larger questions over how, if at all, prostitution can be prevented in the United States (source).  The issue at hand, of course, is how prostitution can be minimized by preventing "legitimate sites" from offering these services.

What about Google?  A quick Google search of "Washington DC escort services" reveals a plethora of websites (some quite upscale) that offer commercial sex - thinly-veiled as "companionship."  The essential question becomes this: how many resources are Americans willing to spend in order to prohibit the "oldest profession?"  Moreover, who are we kidding when we believe that the demand for sex will ever diminish to the point where there is no longer a market for it?

A quick primer on prohibition in general: when a government prohibits a product or service, the demand for this service doesn't go away; the market is driven underground, devoid of regulation and often fraught with all the problems that one would expect to find in a black market.  Violence, coercion, organized crime rings, even slavery and murder. This Craigslist incident, in addition to being about increased censorship of the Internet, is really about the absurd degree to which some Americans are willing to enforce the prohibition of commercial sexual services.

Prostitution should be legal in the United States.  The number of countries decriminalizing commercial sex has been on the incline for decades (source).  Some legal experts (including, yes, women) have argued for the end to the prohibition of prostitution, citing a variety of health, safety, and worker's rights improvements that a legal sex industry would bring (source).  And ultimately, along with the erroneously-named "war on drugs" (which is really a "war on people"), illegal prostitution continues to grow the police state and serves only to prosecute victimless crimes.  In the words of attorney Alan Dershowitz after the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal (source):

"I feel that this is a America-only story that we have to put in perspective. You know, big deal, 'married man goes to prostitute!' In Europe, this wouldn't even make the back pages of the newspaper. It's a uniquely American story. We’re a uniquely, you know, pandering society and hypocritical society, when it comes to sex."

Indeed.  Until we are honest enough with ourselves to admit that women (and men) should have a right to self-ownership - which includes everything from drug use and abortion rights to prostitution and end of life termination - we will have a difficult time claiming to be the "land of the free."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Day The Lorax Went Postal

In Silver Spring, Maryland - just outside Washington, DC, a man named James Lee took three people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters (source).  After what was no doubt a tense situation, Montgomery County police shot and killed Lee.  Of course, after so many recent headlines of former employees "going postal" at their old offices, one might assume this was the cause of the incident.  In hard economic times, we tend to see people at their worst.  Foreign terrorism or a randomly-disturbed individual are, unfortunately, also familiar themes.  Yet these were not the axes that James Lee had to grind.

James Lee's MySpace photo

Lee's wide ranging, rambling demands of Discovery Communications, released in full (source), center on the cessation of human population growth, ending the glorification of war, promoting broader appreciation of biodiversity, and dismantling the capitalist economic system.

In particular, Lee cites a passage from Daniel Quinn's "My Ishmael" - a 1997 novel from a trilogy about a telepathic ape who communicates with humans about the future civilization and planet Earth.  Ishmael concludes that modern humans are "Takers" who consume nature and replace it with "Mother Culture" (social norms, economic systems, religious values) that espouse continual human destruction of the environment.  I read this book with great interest years ago (having read the original "Ishmael" for a undergraduate level ecology course). The author is quite conscious of human population limits on the environment, as stated in a 2007 interview (source):

"So it continues to be seen that it is completely inevitable that our population must continue to grow to 8 billion, 10 billion, 12 billion. If this happens, I'm afraid I see no hope for our species. This disastrous trend... is reversible; but only if people in general come to understand that it MUST be reversed, for the sake of our own survival."

This post is not intended to condone Lee's violent actions or even his rather naive and delusional demands.  Taking hostages at gunpoint rarely results in a productive petitioning of grievances.  In this case, it just left the hostage-taker dead.  It is also highly unlikely that Discovery Channel, driven by demands for ratings and sensational programming, would ever take the critical, sobering position that human population growth is unsustainable and widespread measures should be taken to curb further population explosion.

Then the Lorax said, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND
But are James Lee's beliefs about human civilization "crazy?"  Recall the Dr. Seuss fable, "The Lorax" (full video here) in which a small creature emerges from a deforested landscape to "speak for the trees."  Before we put James Lee's short-lived infamy out of our minds and busy ourselves with other affairs, we might do well to ask ourselves: on behalf of how many extinct species, how many decimated old world forests, and how many polluted oceans might Lee be speaking?

Before we label that which we find abhorrent to be "crazy," as was the case with the 1995 Unabomber manifesto "Industrial Civilization and its Future," (full text here) penned by Theodore Kaczynski, we should stop for a moment. Overpopulation remains a very real concern on many levels - from limited resources such as drinkable water and arable soil to dwindling supplies of cheaply-extracted petroleum (source).  Not to mention, of course the Sixth Extinction, a broad and far-reaching holocaust of plants and animals caused by the actions of humans beings (source).  These are not imagined problems; their threat to life on Earth (human and non) are undeniable by serious people.

At the recommendation of a friend, Lee read Daniel Quinn's books in 2006 and began an ill-conceived campaign to change Discovery's programming in 2008, resulting in his arrest (source).  A psychiatric evaluation concluded Lee was mentally fit - though perhaps less than realistic about how to persuade television executives.  Nonetheless, in his own delusional way, James Lee was attempting to create widespread awareness of these issues through media.  Among the more salient passages, Lee writes:

"The world needs TV shows that DEVELOP solutions to the problems that humans are causing, not stupify the people into destroying the world. Not encouraging them to breed more environmentally harmful humans. 
Saving the environment and the remaning species diversity of the planet is now your mindset. Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels. 
The humans? The planet does not need humans."
Yes James, of course the squirrels.  And while the planet does not need humans, humans do need this planet.  If anything positive is to come of this frightening hostage situation today, let it be that of the Greek mythology of Cassandra (read more about this here).  Sometimes, having an acute perception can drive one crazy.  While Jame's Lee's actions were completely indefensible, his underlying perception of human overpopulation and environmental destruction wrought by narrow pursuits of profit warrant serious consideration.

"In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." —George Dyson, "Darwin Among the Machines"