Archive for March 10th, 2013

Back to the Cavalry

Kit Whitfield made an excellent comment on my post about the anti-theist cavalry of the humanist apocalypse. My reply turned out to be some 1300 words long, which is a post not a comment, so I moved it here. It’s still quite long, so here’s a link to the TL;DR paragraph.

The Horsemen of the Apocralypse!In summary, Kit made the point that anti-theist zealots are overwhelmingly white, male, Western and wealthy, and that this makes their frequent internet claims of victimhood somewhat suspicious. It’s worth reading the context, but that’s the broad thrust of it. She also cited this very good article by Natalie Reed, which discussed in passing the problematic nature of people who have such a powerful megaphone choosing to focus on one problem which, by comparison with many other social justice issues, simply isn’t that important except as a method of keeping the spotlight on the concerns of rich white men.

I then started a comment saying: I’m not in a position to address Kit’s main points directly. Firstly, I’m not really on any side here; I may be an atheist (though it’s hard to tell), I subscribe to a religion, and I have the privilege of being white and male. Secondly, Kit makes pretty good points: e.g. the one about theological ignorance, which is covered in the Appleyard article. He specifically pans Grayling for using false equivalence to protect the anti-theists from the charge of writing in a field they don’t understand. The logic being that if theism is a childish delusion like believing in Care Bears or biting chameleons, there is no need to engage with it on its own terms at all.

Where I disagree is with the implication that to the Horsemen specifically, rather than internet anti-theists generally, this is an insidious and ugly type of victim-claiming. Natalie Reed refers to it as one out of many civil rights issues: it is a civil rights issue, in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, in Texas or Alabama or Louisiana, in Turkey or Egypt. But that’s not the war the anti-theist cavalry want, or the one they are waging. They only seem to care about that kind of civil rights when the misfortunes of poor, female or coloured people around the world provide cheap-shot ammunition for a CNN sound-bite.

Aggressive anti-theisism is, as both Kit and Natalie Reed observe, overwhelmingly white, European / Western, male, wealthy, and very highly educated. The academe, in English at least, treats ‘theology’ as the study, not of gods, or of the concept of deity, but of “our” God specifically. The Horsemen are on a revenge trip. Whatever they may think, claim and fulminate about, they’re not fighting against religion, or even the concept of deity. They’re fighting the Christian God, YHWH, who is also the Jewish God and the Muslim God. They’re battling his egregious servants in the Vatican and the Madrassas; they’re attacking the US televangelist snake-oil shills. They perceive European history as having been dominated by atrocity, oppression and torture solely because of the dominance of organised Christianity, and they’re wrong.

Christianity is only responsible for some of the atrocities, not all of them; one might argue for ‘most’, but I wouldn’t. The Horsemen are anti-theists, in my reading, with three main motivations:

1. They are genuinely appalled at the way the JCI religious behemoth permits spectacular abuses against human decency, and actively encourages those abuses wherever possible for the benefit of the clerical establishment. Think the Blood Libel of Norwich, or the paedophile priests scandal today, or the systmatic rapes of Egyptian women who protested in Tarir Square, or the stoning of nine-year old girls in Israel by men with curly sideburns. The Horsemen perceive themselves, by virtue of being white men, as inheritors of a legacy of horror and shame that is even greater (by its historical breadth and scale) than the shame of slavery in the US. Like US abolitionists and their descendents, they see fighting back as a moral duty, but along the way they conflate the monotheistic triad with all religion. Which is, to be frank, fucking stupid. Daoism, Zen, and Lakotah Nation religions bear no resemblence at all, theologically or historically, to the JCI triad. Virtually no other religions in the recorded history of the concept resemble the religions of the Book as a class. They are genuinely different, which is one reason they became so dominant.

2. The Horsemen have been educated in an academic establishment in which for a very high percentage of elite actors, intelligence == atheism. Cf. the Grayling book, the god delusion (or as some might call it, the god experience) is a pure superstition, or an actual deliberate fraud, depending on whether you’re looking at the laity or the priests. As academicians and journalists, they therefore perceive a duty to educate. The logical error is in conflating spiritual experience with organised religion. Neal Stephenson discussed this in Snow Crash; the fact that in time, smart people notice that 90% of what happens in the modern Christian Church is bullshit, means a lot of Western smart people are atheists. It doesn’t mean that the other 10% is bullshit, or that the only possible response to being smart is to be non-spiritual.

3. They genuinely, as far as I can tell, believe that virtually every human evil, from the oppression of women to global poverty to nuclear warfare to AIDS in Africa, would disappear tomorrow if no-one in the world was stupid enough to be religious. And irritatingly, there’s kernels of truth in that; a great deal of oppression of women is directly enforced by the JCI religions. AIDS in Africa is a massively greater problem than it would have been without Dubya’s attempt at Christian moralism. Pharaonic levels of wealth inequality are permitted, excused and actively enhanced by government policy because Christian puritans developed a moralistic attitude to wealth as God’s reward for virtue, and those Christian elites enjoy punishing the ‘undeserving’ poor. Nuclear warfare remains a major threat in large part because a hefty percentage of America and many other lunatics around the globe really believe that someone pressing the button would result in a good outcome for them personally: and they believe this because of their apocalyptic interpretations of Christianity and Islam.

The Horsemen are also blatantly wrong, in that if you took away organised JCI religion people would still find excuses to be assholes to each other.

The Horsemen view the struggle against organised religion, by which they largely if not exclusively mean Christianity and Islam, as one of the most significant battles around. They think (for good reasons, even if they’re in part wrong) that ending organised religion is how you fix more or less all of the other problems of mankind. They see the removal of the pernicious influence of YHWH (and, as collateral damage, all other spiritual paradigms) as a magic bullet. There are no magic bullets, anyone with a bare grasp of history should know that. To me, that kind of wishful thinking, with no empirical grounding at all, is much less intellectually rigorous than recognising that humans experience gnosis and that they need a language to engage with it.

Hopefully it is by now clear that I neither agree with the Horsemen, nor am I defending them as correct. They’re not; though I am prepared to admit that I would have much less problem with them if they were prepared to confine their indictments to the guilty parties. Specific religions have perpetrated two thousand years of savagery, colonialism, torture, child abuse, oppression and cruelty, but I would argue the Horsemen are unwise to extrapolate from that truth the case that all spiritual experience is fraudulent and evil.

Natalie Reed’s description of internet anti-theism is, I think, largely accurate. As such, it bears a remarkable resemblence to internet racism from the EDL, internet misogyny from UniLad, and GOP assaults on reproductive freedom from the hysterical religious right. But I strongly disagree that the Horsemen themselves are fighting out of an attempt to acquire victim status. They’re fighting because, misguided or not, they are at heart Manicheans; they genuinely seem to believe that the entity Jews, Christians and Muslims worship as ‘God’ is the root of all evil.


Daily Trawl

Mostly economics today, though some of it is also about the interent.

1. Noah Smith on Shinzo Abe.
Noahpinion present a summary report card on the Abenomics ‘revolution’ in Japan.

2. Understanding Society: Detroit edition
US cities have a habit of being autophagic; strong, thriving metropoli which get into self-amplifying feedback loops of white flight, educational failure, corruption and despair. Given that systemic racism and deliberate policies of white flight and ghettoization predate the death of the auto industry by some 40 years, one might suspect that what really broke Detroit was WASP paranoia and segregationist sentiment, not economics or gobal competition.

3. Slap Cameron week
EconoSpeak gets in on the fun of pointing out that the UK Prime Minister is either a) incompetent or b) dishonest, and has painted himself into such a corner that his own Office of Budget Responsibility had to publicly call him out for lying about their findings.

4. Values issue
The Economist are having an essay forum looking at how one can study and assess the consumer surplus generated by the internet, or in more normal language, what is it actualy worth?

Us and Them III: After Anslinger

[ US & Them IUs & Them II – Us & Them III – Us & Them IV ]

Would you trust this man with your kids' future?When Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, Anslinger had been gone from the FBN for nearly ten years, but his legacy was alive and well. The Iron Law still held, though by that time the category of Them had been broadened to include anti-war protesters, civil rights protesters, hippies, teenagers and anyone else who troubled right-wing America. One of Nixon’s first acts in prosecuting his new war was to recruit the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Typical of Nixon, he did the thing Anslinger had always had the sense not to do; he got some guys together who knew some stuff and instructed them to look at the evidence and tell him what it said. The result rather surprised him.

The use of drugs is not in itself an irresponsible act. Medical and scientific uses serve important individual and social needs and are often essential to our physical and mental well-being. Further, the use of drugs for pleasure or other non-medical purposes is not inherently irresponsible.

A variety of other key findings from the report confounded the orthodoxy Anslinger had invented. Marijuana is not dangerous, and its use is very rarely debilitating. Marijuana is not addictive, but can be habit-forming. If marijuana were legal and regulated, alcohol addiction and its associated social traumas could fall by as much as 25% [1]. Marijuana prohibition might not withstand honest Constitutional scrutiny. The report concluded that:

[Anslinger’s] policy grew out of a distorted and greatly exaggerated concept of the drug’s ordinary effects upon the individual and the society. On the basis of information then available, marihuana was not adequately distinguished from other problem drugs and was assumed to be as harmful as the others.

The increased incidence of use, intensive scientific reevaluation, and the spread of use to the middle and upper socioeconomic groups have brought about the informal adoption of a modified social policy. On the basis of our opinion surveys and our empirical studies of law enforcement behavior, we are convinced that officialdom and the public are no longer as punitive toward marihuana use as they once were.


Law enforcement policy, both at the Federal and State levels, implicitly recognizes that elimination is impossible at this time. The active attempt to suppress all marihuana use has been replaced by an effort to keep it within reasonable bounds. Yet because this policy still reflects a view that marihuana smoking is itself destructive enough to justify punitive action against the user, we believe it is an inappropriate social response.

Let that one fester a while. The US government has known since year one of the War on Drugs that the whole shooting match is a waste of time.

What If Nobody Came?

As it turns out, Nixon had a lot on his mind in 1972, and pretty much continued to be distracted all the way through the Watergate scandal. He did find time to reorganise Federal jurisdiction, folding various smaller agencies into the FBN and renaming the result the DEA. When Ford arrived he had pre-occupations of his own, and no better idea what to do with the NCMDA report than Nixon had, so he stuck it in a drawer and ignored it. The newly-minted war rambled on ineffectively through the ’70s.

Finally a Democrat got into the White House. By 1978 a number of states had passed laws decriminalising, legalising, or establishing medical uses for cannabis. Carter supported the push towards liberalising Federal laws, and that turned out to be a tragic decision. The Carter Presidency was one of the worst ever, incompetent, ineffective and woefully unpopular. His association with drug liberalisation ended serious attempts by the Democratic party to engage with the issue at all for twenty years. His disastrous term led to the resurgence of the right and Nancy Reagan’s escalation of the War on Drugs.

Way to kill the chill, man...The First Lady’s flagship campaigns, Just Say No and D.A.R.E., are matched only by ‘Stranger Danger’ in the annals of spectacularly effective and equally misguided public information campaigns. The zero tolerance policies that accompanied them cemented for another two decades the popular canards that cannabis was a gateway drug, which it isn’t, and that it fries your brain, which it doesn’t. Like the Hearst campaigns for Harry Anslinger, the Reagans’ approach to cannabis was pure FUD, but they were clever enough to treat the fear and uncertainty as givens. That allowed them to concentrate on socially legitimizing and sponsoring the doubt [2]. The campaigns didn’t work (in that usage didn’t decrease below long-term trends), but they did effectively end any chance at a balanced public discourse for an entire generation. In the early ’90s the culture wars were re-ignited by the zealots of the Gingrich Revolution, and the stage was set for the grotesque geo-political disaster that attended America’s confrontation with the Colombian cartels and all of the sequels we have lived through since.

Marking Time

But, as the NCMDA predicted in 1972, marijuana wasn’t going anywhere. Quietly, steadily, privately, during the two decades since 1990, the world has changed under the prohibitionists feet. One of the most significant factors in that steady and progressive change in public opinion was the advent of the Internet. Above all else, and from its earliest days, the effect of the Internet has been to put hard information, previously accessible only by elites, into the hands of the commons. For the first time, thousands of young people raised in a culture of inquiry had access to actual data about cannabis, and what they found was that their parents and grand-parents had been lying to them.

The last few years have seen by far the most significant progress since the late 1970s. Eighteen US states have legalised medical marijuana, and another five are likely to join them during this electoral term. A hundred and forty-nine dignitaries concluded on behalf of the United Nations that the War on Drugs is a failure and should be replaced by rational policy. Sitting Heads of State in three Latin American countries, Switzerland, Portugal and Poland have called for or enacted decriminalisation policies. Two US States have legalised recreational use of cannabis. And at last, Hearst’s dead hand has lifted from the muzzles of the media, and we’re just begining to see an informed and rational public debate about the issue.

We’re still caught in the trap of Us and Them, but the law is lagging behind society. They have become Us, and the Iron Law says that presages the end of prohibition. I’ll leave you with this glorious passage from the conclusion of the NCMDA report:

This nation tries very had to instill in its children independence, curiosity and a healthy self-assurance. These qualities guarantee a dynamic, progressive society. Where drugs are concerned, however, we have relied generally on authoritarianism and on obedience. Drug education has generally been characterized by overemphasis of scare tactics. Some segments of the population have been reluctant to inform for fear of arousing curiosity in young minds. Where drugs are concerned, young people are simply supposed to nod and obey. […] The Commission feels that the criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal use is socially self-defeating.

[1] This is a finding which has been reproduced recently, in work by Professor Nutt at Imperial College, London.
[2] I possibly need to unpack that a bit. Remember the infamous commercial? “This is your brain…” As Bill Hicks points out, that’s FUD. There is no data here, no information; no content, in fact, at all. It’s just fear, uncertainty and doubt. Compare and contrast with public awareness campaigns about actual dangerous things: the Green Cross Code, AIDS in the late 80s in the UK, or the unpleasant images on cigatette packets today. The Reagan-era campaigns were very, very clever in simply assuming marijuana was damaging. They presented no arguments which could be disputed or disproved, or even engaged with. They used very powerful, very simple imagery and then painted doubt (Dare to be different…) as a social good. This is enormously clever because it disguises something false (cannabis is bad) behind something true (thinking for yourself is good). Never mind that any kid who D.A.R.E.’d to be different was actually letting Nancy Reagan think for them.

[ US & Them IUs & Them II – Us & Them III – Us & Them IV ]

March 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith