In which I fansquee over my favorite talk at Skepticon

I wasn’t going to do a roundup of talks and workshops of Skepticon, because that stuff Is generally well taken care of by the folks at Skepchick and FTB.


Dr. Monica Miller‘s talk, titled “I Got 99 Problems But God Ain’t One: Hip Hop and Humanism’s New Black Godz” was fucking amazing. And I almost didn’t go, because I don’t music in general, and Hip Hop specifically doesn’t figure at all in my life. So I didn’t think I was going to get much out of that particular event. But I stayed and was glad for it. It was an hour of sociology and cultural analysis beyond the 101-level of explaining to people what “socially constructed” means, and because neither the topic nor the particular perspective on it were something I was familiar with, it was one of these talks in which I felt my brain re-arranging its well-worn ways of thinking about humanism.

Her talk was a discussion of how a humanism can be expressed with religious language, without actually talking about old bearded dudes in the sky etc. Specifically she talked about the way hip hop uses “god talk”, meaning religious imagery and language, to express non-religious, humanist ideas, e.g. criticism of class and race structures, as well as criticism of organized religion*. She mentioned that the history of this practice goes back to the slave spirituals which used religious/biblical language to talk about the very here-worldly topic of fleeing north and described this as a dominant language or framework being pushed on an oppressed people. That framework didn’t get rejected but subverted instead, put to a use different from the one the Christian framework serves/served in the dominant community. In the talk, Dr. Miller also notes that she is suspicious of statistics about the religiosity of America’s black communities, which show black Americans to be extremely religious. The interpretation of religion and the religious framework as a subverted and re-purposed thing which she presented in this talk is one way to think about this supposed religiosity: that despite superficial appearances, it’s not actually always about some “god” out there, but about “gods” in humanity; that it is humanism, expressed through god talk.

What was interesting to me at a more personal level was her self-description as both a functionalist and a deconstructionist. Most of the functionalism I’ve been familiar with until now has tended to view society as a more-or-less unified whole with structures that function for the purposes of society as that unified whole***. A functionalist who focuses on non-dominant groups, and especially on the functions of dominant structures as subverted and re-purposed by the subaltern is deeply fascinating to me. Or, as the Internet used to say, “I am intrigued by [her] ideas and would like to subscribe to [her] newsletter”. Which I can. Because she’s on twitter and she writes at Culture on the Edge, and she wrote a book**** which I have and shall read shortly, and she also wrote this paper and this paper, which I’d also love to read but can’t cuz the university finally yanked my library access *coughhintcough*.

Most importantly though, I hope to see more of Dr. Monica Miller at skeptic and atheist events. Because she’s awesome and her ideas are awesome and she’s a great speaker.[/fansquee]

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*The complete list of songs/videos in the talk:
No Church In the Wild, New Slaves, I am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven. For those who can’t do video, or like me can’t process language in music very well, here are the lyrics in text: No Church in The Wild**, New Slaves, I Am A God, Picasso Baby, and Heaven

**Note the Euthyphro dilemma :-)

***with the sole exception of the essay on the Uses of Poverty(pdf), which goes through the effort of distinguishing between benefits to society as a whole, and benefits to the dominant groups within it.

****the price is so high because it qualifies as an academic book/textbook. We don’t make the rules, we just suffer from them.

“women” didn’t

When Obama won re-election, the media story went that “women voters” rejected Romney because of his stance on reproductive rights*. This framing is not a false claim in itself; women as a group really were more likely to vote for Obama than for Romney (55% and 44% respectively). And since many sites that present demographic stats on such elections are doing so by sorting people into single-demographic-marker categories**, that tends to look like the entirety of the story. But it isn’t. When you take apart these large demographic lumps, as CNN did here, it becomes obvious that “women voters” didn’t vote as a block at all. Only 42% of white women voted for Obama, while 96% of black women and 76% of Latina voters did; they’re the ones who won the “women vote” for Obama***

Why am I bringing this up now, a year after the presidential election?

Because the same narrative about “women voters” is being dragged out to explain the Virginia Governor race which Ken Cuccinelli just lost and in which according to the exit polls(pdf) barely over half the women voted for the Democrat in the race. Such articles were being written before the race (and Rachel Maddow talked about the gender gap as well), but the election results show a much smaller gap than had been predicted. And yet, despite that tiny number, people are writing articles again about how “women” elected the Democratic candidate****. Granted, they’re a bit more nuanced this time than during the presidential race, actually looking a bit deeper at the demographics; but the overall narrative and the headlines stay the same. Even though white women, again, voted for the Republican candidate (54%), while only 38% of them voted for the Democrat.

What bothers me about the narrative of “Women” deciding these elections is not that they’re not strictly speaking true; statistically they’re true but incomplete. What bothers me is that the narrative exemplified in these articles then gets picked up by individual white women as well as organizations with few minority women as a story about a collective “us” that voted for Democrats (or against Republicans) that completely erases the regressiveness of the average white woman voter as well as the heavy lifting done by progressive minority women; a heavy lifting done in the face of ongoing voter suppression, to boot. This appropriation of positive actions is in many ways the twin of the appropriation of violence statistics in which a too large demographic “we” is made out to be victims of violence, when most of the incidences come from oppressed groups within that huge demographic but they are used as talking points to promote the agenda of the (relatively) dominant groups within it.

Not only is this erasure and appropriation rather disgusting in itself, it will also assure a complete lack of self-reflection, a lack of trying to figure out how to stop the white, wealthier, and/or married women from voting against the interests of all other women, and to some degree even against their own. There will be too little analysis of race and class, even though they are so eminently relevant to why a particular group of women keeps on voting for the most toxic candidates available.

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*for example, here, here, and here

**like this one orthis one

***and by the way, the same thing was true for the “youth vote”, since only 44% of white 20-somethings voted for Obama.

****for example here and here

Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*

Intersectional Atheism

There is absolutely nothing on the internet about intersectionality within atheism/skepticism. I checked. The entirety of what’s out there is about atheism as part of the Matrix of Oppression in society as a whole, but nothing about the how the Matrix of Oppression works on and within atheism or the skeptical movement.

Which is why I’m writing this post despite the fact that I’m just about the last person who should, since I have a small audience, and one that’s made up to a very large degree of white, straight(-ish), guys. Someone has to make this post, and at least once it’s written, it’ll be out there on google for more relevant people to pick up on it. Plus, maybe some good ideas will come of it even here.

So, for starters, intersectionality means looking at oppression and discrimination not from the POV of identity-politics, but from the POV of the three main dimensions of oppression: the institutional, the symbolic, and the personal. We don’t think much about this in atheism/skepticism, especially as it relates to the skeptical/atheist movements themselves. We just take for granted that certain aspects of being or becoming an atheist and being/becoming a part of the atheist movement, are universal because they apply to most of the atheists we know. “most atheists we know” most often happens to be other white/straight(-ish)/male atheists (and the occasional white/straight(-ish)/female atheist who happens to live a life that closely resembles that of the male equivalent). These non-intersectional, most likely unconscious, assumptions are very likely what explains the abysmal lack of diversity in the atheist/skeptical movement.

If the goal of the atheist/skeptical movements is really to broaden the base and make atheism, and especially skepticism, attractive, acceptable, and attainable by as many people as possible, then solving the lack of diversity is essential, because white, straight, cis, middle class or higher, ex-christian(or cultural christian), anglophone guys make up a minority of the population even in Western Europe and the USA, where they’re most common. Hence the need for intersectional atheism: if we can’t figure out how the perspectives, issues, and problems of people from completely different backgrounds differ from ours, we will never be able to make our ideas acceptable to them, even if they’d otherwise already agree with us. Because people aren’t going to accept a worldview/contribute to a movement that behaves as if they didn’t exist, creates an environment in which they feel unwelcome, unneeded, or even threatened, and expects them to give up more than just their attachment to irrational ideas and/or superstitions.

So, here’s a list of stuff that needs analyzing and possibly changing, and that most importantly could really need the input of atheists/skeptics from these backgrounds:

1)Most prominent atheists are deconverts from the mainstream religion within their cultures, specifically Christianity. This creates issues and perspectives quite different from those who would be deconverting from a minority-religion, and especially from a religion closely tied to a discriminated against ethnic community. The problems WASP-y future ex-christians face are completely and utterly different from the issues facing Native Americans thinking skeptically about their tribal religions, or members of Middle Eastern diasporas thinking about leaving Islam. To them, the perspectives of secular diasporic Jews would probably be far more valuable than the perspectives of millions of cultural Christians living in cultures that are Christian or even secular-but-formerly/predominantly-Christian.

2)Related to the former is the assumption that secularization equals Westernization. Meaning, it seems to me that too many atheists assume that deconversion from a non-Christian religion automatically means also becoming part of the mainstream western culture (and on a larger scale, that secularization of a country means abandoning traditions derived from their cultures in favor of Western culture), which, in case no one noticed, is to a large degree de-religioned Christian/Euro-pagan culture. Secularism won’t ever win in non-Western countries if the choices are traditional religion vs. neo-colonialist secularism. The secularism of non-Western cultures must be a home-grown secularism that manages to separate the harmful and supernatural aspects of their culture without destroying the culture as a whole. And since the West managed that, there’s absolutely no reason to assume this cannot be accomplished with non-Western cultures.

3)Simply talking about how well feminism (and anti-racism or LGBT-activism for that matter) and atheism/skepticism go together won’t do any good if this is not something the atheist/skeptic movement actually acts on. Skeptifem said that she started her blog specifically to fill the niche of analyzing things critically from a skeptical feminist perspective. This perspective is still extremely rare within the skeptic movement, which is idiotic, because the Matrix of Oppression, and especially the symbolic dimension of oppression, lends itself spectacularly to skeptical analysis. So why isn’t there any of that?

4)Going from theory to praxis, atheist/skeptic events are also never intersectional. Part of the problem is that they’re lecture-based. The grass-roots, interactive level happens after the events, in the evenings over beers. This perpetuates already established hierarchies. And while one way to fix this is to invite more speakers from different backgrounds, another is to make grassroots participation an inherent part of the events. Interactive workshops, children’s events, and safe-rooms have been some of the things mentioned as possibilities to attract a more diverse crowd and faciliate more diverse conversation. I’d add that these sort of things need to be also part of the smaller interactive events. People with small children, people who work non-traditional hours, etc. may not be able to participate in the standard atheism/skepticism in a pub format.

5)Women who grew up within and still live in very conservative, religious, rural communities, especially if they’re also poor, depend on their church communities for social networking, influence, help etc. While internet communities help, physical rural support networks for people who think of leaving a religion are absolutely essential, because people are never likely to cut themselves off from their social safety network if there isn’t an alternative network. (this has worked somewhat on Pharyngula’s TET, both in terms of financial help and personal support. It’s still extremely spotty though)

Well, that’s all I can think of right now, and I’d definitely welcome other ideas or issues that might need to be addressed. It’s not muc right now, because there simply isn’t much to go on right now. That fact alone means that what atheism needs is something like Womanist Musings but for atheism instead of feminism, just so different perspectives can be shared between diverse writers and a wide audience. Obviously, I and my blog are entirely unsuited for that endeavor for the aforementioned reasons and because I suck at organizing people (I wouldn’t be able to convince a starving person to buy a sandwich from me, nevermind convince a bunch of diverse people I don’t know to start blogging together on the issue of intersectional atheism). But I’m curious if anyone has any ideas about which bloggers would make a good contribution to such a collective?

Booker T Washington — The Teabaggers’ favorite African-American

If you go back to the post about the Teabagger Magazine, you’ll notice that there’s an article about Booker T Washington in it. There is a reason that teabaggers would do this, and why they like this man. I wasn’t aware of this, because I didn’t, until last week, know shit about Booker T Washington. But I had to read one of his essays for class recently, and a lightbulb went on. So, I’m going to share what I’ve found out. I’m sure it won’t be too difficult to see why the teabaggers like him.

Booker T Washington was born in slavery, and he was very active in African American politics in the South, especially after Reconstruction, between 1890 and 1915. He was a very prominent figure, especially because he actually had a good number of white sponsors to his cause. This was primarily because of something called the Atlanta Compromise.

Here are some excerpts from and about his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, from his autobiography:

“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in in an opera-house.”

“My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through ouside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by “foreigners” or “aliens”, to do something which it dies not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin.”

“I believe that it is the duty of the Negro — as the greater part of the race is already doing — to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from possession of property, intelligence and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I believe that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night gourd-vine affair.”

“As a rule, I believe in universal, free suffrage, but I believe that in the South we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states, for a while at least, either by an educational test, a property test, or by both combined”

bonus quotes:

“then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe”

“To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, […] Cast down your bucket* among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South”

I’m not going to comment on what cultural work Washington’s accommodationist writing was performing during his lifetime, because I’m really not familiar enough with the political and social context. Suffice it to say that he did have contemporary African-American critics, most notably W.E.B. DuBois. However, aligning yourself with these sentiments today speaks volumes, and not necessarily in favor of those who do so, I think.

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*metaphor for seeking what you want where you are, instead of looking for it elsewhere