The Guardians of Tone
Women's Anti-Suffrage Association

Image via.

I was tipped off to this excellent essay by a reader (thanks, bbk, even if it was unintentional!) and since it got buried in the comments on the other thread, I wanted to call special attention to it. It's about the virtues of anger, specifically with reference to the feminist movement, but it contains some valuable lessons that are applicable to atheism and other progressive social causes as well.

The one thing that absolutely terrifies a prejudiced majority is anger, no matter how righteous or how justified, from any oppressed or marginalized group. That's why any member of such a group who does express anger for any reason whatsoever will immediately be tarred with the standard, well-worn insults used to belittle and dismiss the speaker's concerns and equate their passion for justice to irrational insanity.

We should all be familiar with these labels by now. Feminists are crazed man-haters; atheists are rude venom-spewers who want to tear down the harmless beliefs that give people comfort; gays and lesbians are perverts and sex fiends; and heaven help you if you're a black person running for office who dares to suggest that maybe the treatment black people receive is somewhat less than fully equal. That's why Barack Obama only won the presidency by being one of the coolest and most conciliatory presidents in American history, and even so, the right-wing noise machine still writes attack books with titles like The Roots of Obama's Rage. (When a black person with some connection to Obama did express anger at something, the soundbites, predictably stripped of context, circulated in the media for weeks.)

The guardians of tone always stand ready to demonize any member of a minority who displays anger or passion, no matter how well-founded it is in actual, ongoing injustices. The only way to avoid their slanders is to bend over backwards to be mild and inoffensive, not rock the boat, and not make the majority in any way uncomfortable. You'll get bonus points if you're a member of the group in question who's willing to affirm popular prejudices and piously wag your finger at activists for being too zealous or "extremist" - Fox News and the Templeton Foundation, to name two, will richly reward their useful pawns. Religious apologists, also, will fulsomely praise atheists who publicly wish they were believers.

The reason why they do this is obvious: because a movement led by its least ambitious, most conciliatory members isn't going to get anything done. The guardians of tone are really the guardians of popular prejudice, concern-trolling for all they're worth in an effort to prevent us from making anything more than cosmetic changes. They counsel us to be meek, to be mild, to be small and bland and inoffensive, because that makes it much easier to ignore us altogether. Suzanne Moore's essay argues that feminism has, in part, fallen victim to this:

Nowadays, saying bad stuff about men is not how feminism conducts itself. We all lurve men. We are all smiley for fear of being labelled man-haters. And what is the result of this people-pleasing, ultra-feminine, crowd-sourced sexual politics? Sod all. Reasonably sitting around waiting for equality while empowering oneself with some silicone implants does not really seem to have worked wonders, does it ladeez?

Conversely, the way to rouse large numbers of people into action is to get them angry, to make them aware of the evils that are being committed against them or in their name. Anger motivates people, and when properly directed and focused, it makes them unignorable. The guardians of tone know this, which is why they try to belittle and disperse it. A reform movement lacking any tangible sense of anger at the injustice it's trying to end is like a person without a circulatory system. Of course, those who most visibly embody that progressive anger come in for the most demonization:

God, how I miss those troublesome women like Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone. They may have been batty as hell but they had passion. And balls. They were properly furious at the horrible things men do to women. Who in their right mind, male or female, isn't?

And possibly my favorite line from the whole essay:

We need fire in our belly for this fight, not a bleedin' gastric bypass.

This doesn't mean that a successful progressive movement has no room for diplomats, or for other "polite and smiley" advocates. On the contrary, we need people who can represent us to the existing power brokers. But diplomats by themselves are like people stranded on a melting ice floe, negotiating for a few extra moments of footing. They offer no reason to change the status quo. When diplomats are backed up by a passionate, angry and motivated crowd tugging furiously on the far end of the Overton window - that's a combination that can achieve a lot. Diplomats of any stripe are far more effective when they can credibly claim that, if you won't deal with them, the alternative is unleashing the dogs of war.

That's why, when it's justified by outrageous unfairness, we atheists and progressive activists should get angry - in a focused way, at the people who are responsible - and ignore the squawks of the guardians of tone and their well-paid pawns. They only want to silence us, and we don't answer to them. And if we follow this advice and let our passion guide us, the day will soon come when these officious cultural enforcers will be cast down for good.

January 28, 2011, 6:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink201 comments
Tags:

The Abolition Spirit Is Undeniably Atheistic

Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I've previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I'd like to add some more evidence on that subject.

Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. - the highest elected position in that body - and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that "Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion" and praised "his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching", which "gave him such power... as few of the Lord's ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church".

But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln's election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that "I have never intermeddled with political questions," but that he was compelled to speak on politics because "we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation". Since Palmer was the representative of "a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance", namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.

And what vital message did he have to impart?

A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual.... this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world's progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken... If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.

Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn't just the South's divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since "their character fits them for dependence and servitude", and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon "relapse into their primitive barbarism" and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South's side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was "recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God".

Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension... My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!

And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too:

...in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.

...This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — "liberty, equality, fraternity," which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs - but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I'm happy to accept it.

We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist - and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)

Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That's because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn't nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they're quite right - because we're the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!

January 17, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments
Tags:

The Roots of the War on Christmas

This year, as they do every year, the religious right is engaging in its annual bout of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering over the supposed secular plot to ban Christmas. Fox News, Christian-right groups, and other outlets in the culture war publish TV segments like "Christmas Under Siege", books like John Gibson's The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, and websites such as Defend Christmas.

Judging by their hysteria, one would think Christmas was teetering on the brink of extinction, rather than a looming and omnipresent holiday that dominates the end of the year and seemingly consumes all media beginning, in many cases now, as soon as the day after Halloween. I'd reassure these conservatives that it's not going away, if I thought that would do any good. But of course, whipping up irrational fear and anger among their followers is their stock in trade, and it's big business, too. ("Now you too can join the battle to save Christmas from the secular progressives for only $24.99, plus shipping!")

One of the most memorable salvos in the "War on Christmas" was fired by Bill O'Reilly back in 2005:

See, I think it's all part of the secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square. Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually.

You see, Target store clerks saying "Happy Holidays" are just the first step in our insidious plan to silence Christianity so we can institute legalized euthanasia, abortion on demand, and presumably men marrying box turtles. But what O'Reilly may not know is that the War on Christmas is much older than he thinks. Take a guess: who said this?

Instead of looking forward to Christmas, it is a spirit of inquiry as to how far we can go at Christmas. We are asking whether we dare, as Christians in a Christian land, whisper the Name that gives Christmas its meaning. That is, the Christians are doing the Christmas asking early this year. Christian teachers want to know if they will be discharged if they give their classes a bit of Christmas flavor, as all our teachers gave us when we were young. The contrast between the schools which we of the mature generation attended when we were young, and the schools of today whose pupils are carefully screened from the fact that Christmas celebrates Christ, is such a contrast as ought to give mature Americans a pause.

Aside from the fact that it's more articulate than the usual shouting heads, this bit of paranoia sounds just like the nonsense that Fox commentators and Focus on the Family spokesmen spew out every year. All the same elements are there: Christians being persecuted by a powerful enemy, religious messages screened out of schools and public places, and longing for a return to the Christian heritage of the past.

Give up yet? That piece of doggerel was written by Henry Ford, American industrialist... in his 1920 anti-Semitic screed, The International Jew.

Here's some more from that publication:

People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.

When Cleveland and Lakewood arranged for a community Christmas, the Cleveland Jewish press said: "The writer of this has no idea how many Jews there are in Lakewood, but if there is only one, there should be no community Christmas, no community religion of any kind." That is not a counsel of tolerance, it is a counsel of attack. The Christmas literature of American Judaism is fiercer than the flames of the Inquisition.

—At the request of a rabbi, three principals of Roxbury, Massachusetts, public schools agree to banish the Christmas tree and omit all references to the season in their schools.—Jewish pupils of Plainfield, New Jersey, petition the abolition of the Bible and Christian songs from the schools.—The Council of the University Settlement, at the request of the New York Kehillah and the Federation of Rumanian Jews, adopts this resolution: "That in holiday celebrations held annually by the Kindergarten Association at the University Settlement every feature of any sectarian character, including Christmas trees, Christmas programs and Christmas songs, and so on, shall be eliminated."

In its recitation of alleged incidents, its complaint that the minority are imposing their will on the majority, and the belief that every message is permitted except the Christian one, Ford's tract is a dead ringer for the Christian-right rants we still hear today. Replace "Jews" with "secular progressives" or "atheists", and "New York Kehillah" with "ACLU", and these words could have come from the mouth of Bill O'Reilly or any of the right's other modern-day culture warriors.

Appealing to religious prejudice, claiming the Christian majority is being persecuted and threatened by an unpopular minority, is a time-honored tactic used by genuine bigots past and present. By accusing others of doing what they themselves would like to do, they divert attention from their own goals. (It's not just anti-Semites, either: books like Markos Moulitsas' Taking on the System point out that almost identical screeds were produced by ultra-rightist groups like the John Birch Society during the McCarthy era, this time fingering Communists rather than Jews as the nefarious enemies of Christmas.) What's remarkable is how little these messages of hate have changed over the decades, other than to substitute the name of whichever cultural group is currently in disfavor.

December 19, 2008, 9:49 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
Tags:

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM: THE BOOK
Now available from Big Think!

RECENT POSTS

MUST-READ POSTS (view all)

RECENT COMMENTS

SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)

TAG ARCHIVE

ARCHIVES

POST SERIES

see all >

BLOGROLL

PODCASTS

FORUMS

OTHER LINKS

THIS BLOG'S PARENT SITE

SEARCH THIS SITE

RSS 2.0 FEED

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES

WHY "DAYLIGHT ATHEISM"?

FEEDBACK

SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS

SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize