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More on the Reason Rally: What the left can learn from the godless

Jesus rides a dinosaur at The Reason Rally, March 24, 2012

Brooke woke up earlier than her customary “crack of noon” wakeup on the weekends and is now busily draining my hot water tank for her “hour shower”. (note to self: commence 5 minute shower training regimen for upcoming exchange trip to Germany) All this is to say that once she’s awake and has fed that monster that lives in her stomach, she can set about to download her pictures.

In the meantime, I want to talk about what I think the left can learn from the Reason Rally and vice versa. This is really important because although movements like Occupy have struck a nerve with the public and have reintroduced morality into our public discourse (that’s what the “we are the 99%” mantra is all about), it suffers from something that the Reason Rally already has- established community organizations or just organization, period.

Organization is not a bad thing. Getting together and having a show is much easier to do when you plan and delegate. It’s also much harder for police to breakup. The people on the mall yesterday were every bit as committed as anyone who has attended an Occupy event. They are just as concerned with the erosion of our constitutional rights, just as concerned with the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised and just as committed to do something about it. But they choose to do it through the groups they have already established. They are humanist, secularist, rationalist, freethought, atheist and skeptic groups. They’ve been around for awhile but in just the past few years, they have seen an explosion of their ranks. Here are a few things that set them apart from the Occupy movement:

1.) They organize conferences. There are a number of freethought, skeptic and atheist conferences across the country. Some of these happen in colleges, like Skepticon, which is held each year in Missouri. But there are also a lot of freethought groups scattered all over the bible belt in places like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and even Mississippi. Find a venue that won’t be raided by dudes in riot gear and invite some speakers. This last point is important. The kind of people who went to the Reason Rally are the kind you might have seen at early Occupy marches. They are ordinary, middle class and working class people and their kids. But what you won’t see at a Reason Rally event is batallions of storm troopers. I didn’t see a strong police presence at all at yesterday’s rally.

2.) They write books. Many of the invited speakers for yesterday’s rally in Washington have written very popular books that fall into the category of what I will call The New Enlightenment (shout out to Dan Barker who started a “Tell me what Enlightenment looks like, This is what Enlightenment looks like!”) Some of those books, like Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, are well known and popular. Others, like Dan Barker’s Godless is a *de-conversion* story, and we’ve all seen the power of personal testimonials at DailyKos. The important thing is that the these de-conversions broke new ground. It’s important that religious insiders write them because it comes from an authentic place and those insiders know how the “company” works. Other speakers like Michael Shermer, write on morality. It is important for your prospective audience to know what issues you are wrestling with so they can engage and dissent. And dissent is crucial to growing confidence in a movement. That’s how ideas grow and breakthroughs happen. Your audience shouldn’t be afraid to challenge you on your statements and that leads to something that I think the Reason Rally participants value most of all (I’ll get to that at the end).

3.) They use media in many forms to reach out to others outside the group. There are a number of podcasts and community television programs that are employed so that outsiders have a chance to interact and learn. One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about New Enlightment leaders is that they’ve found their niches of specialization pretty easily and are developing their talents in that specialization. Richard Dawkins is like a guru. He is full of wonder at the breathtaking beauty of nature and he communicates that very well. His audiences listen with rapt attention to the way he articulates what they are experiencing about the world and themselves without the interference of dogma. Jerry DeWitt of Recovering from Religion is another talented speaker who encourages us to live fully in the present and be joyful about our own uniqueness and individuality. Other leaders inspire through humor or entertainment, like Tim Minchin or Eddie Izzard. I’d even put Dan Barker in this category because his Friendly Neighborhood Atheist song (please put this online, guys. It’s delightful), which was a homage to the very decent Fred Rogers, can take the heat out of possible conflict with gentle humor and musicality. Some leaders are very good on YouTube. That media suits their deftness with editing their stream of consciousness thoughts into brilliant arguments. I’m thinking Cristina Rad, AronRa, Thunderfoot and Evid3nc3. Still others like Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) who is involved with the Secular Student Alliance, Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist) and Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience) engage the public through dialogue in a radio and TV format. You can call in and ask them anything. If you’re a feminist, check out The Godless Bitches with Beth Presswood and friends. Then there are watchdog groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation who work with lawyers and the law to make sure the rights of non-believers are respected. They defend people like Jessica Ahlquist, see to it that they don’t go it alone and know they have support and the law behind them. Or Sean Faircloth’s lobbying effort through the Secular Coalition of America. In short, there is something for everyone. You pick the level and method of your involvement and there will be a community out there for it.

4.) They learned from the experiences of other groups. Greta Christina, atheist activist, has a brilliant piece about what the non-believer community can learn from the LGBT community and the similarities are striking between the two groups. People like Greta are invaluable in pointing out how to avoid the pitfalls of the groups that went before you and where you might even speed up the process or avoid alienating your friends.

5.) Finally, and this is the most important part that I think is hardest to articulate, they have RIGOR. What is rigor? Well, from a labrat’s POV, rigor is a hard quality to achieve. It is discipline of the mind to learn to separate data from bias, experience from artifact and to be able to make conclusions that survive past the current set of observations. If your conclusions can’t be applied to new experiences, your method must be revised until they can. A method must have rigor or it’s a fucking useless piece of shit, excuse my French. That’s why sciencey types are always asking questions and poking holes in other people’s arguments. They’re not trying to be pains in the asses (unless they’re suckups who are trying to impress their bosses). They are looking for rigor. And you shouldn’t be insulted when they ask you to defend yourself. In fact, it’s kind of a challenge of equals. You show me your evidence, I’ll show you mine and we’ll do sort of mental fencing and see who wins. You should have the evidence, data and preliminary conclusions to back up what you are saying. It’s only when you don’t have that evidence, and then refuse to acknowledge that you need it, that the rationally minded individual starts to pigeon hole you as a nutter or ignorant or most of the time, just plain lazy.

When Fox News types accuse the Reason Rally audience as simply having faith of a different kind, those leaders can come back with, “not really, we just have rigor!“. That ought to send the Fundies scrambling for their dictionaries.

But a lot of the left is just as plain lazy and ignorant as those on the right. They’re just lazy about different things. The right goes on about God and faith and evolution and can just be tiresome after awhile. And on the left, the stupid non-rigorous posturing about GM food, vaccines, and homeopathic remedies gets really old as well. Yes, they may actually be good or bad for you but where is your rigor?

The left needs to be on its guard, but frequently isn’t, to people who will seek to exploit this lack of rigor for their own ends. We may all laugh at Michelle Bachmann’s crazy talk about the HPV vaccine causing brain damage but the left doesn’t blink an eye when some equally crazy person on the left makes the claim that bee colonies are being wiped out by GM corn. Whole websites have been known to eat that bit of “vacuous crap” without question. And it doesn’t need to be said at this point that if the left had been more rigorous in its selection process in 2008, it wouldn’t have been rolled by the Democratic party’s PR operatives into supporting the weakest candidate that moderate Republicans would find acceptable.

Failures like these hurt the left because when it starts to respond with emotion rather than reason, it can often fail to identify the real causes for alarm. It makes the left less effective advocates or adversaries because emotion and faith is easy to dismiss. In fact, there are just as many people on the left who haven’t got a clue what “critical thinking skills” are as there are on the right. It just a term that sounds good and smart. But from what I have seen of the left, there’s a lot of learning to do about what it means to think critically. It is vitally important that we learn to do so as quickly as possible because evidence and rigor are much more deadly than mere tribal beliefs when we seek to disarm our adversaries.

So, what I would advise Occupy to do is to start applying more rigor to its methods. It should not be afraid to challenge its own beliefs. It is a good thing to apply the scientific method. You know that there is widespread suffering. You know that people are being exploited, cheated, mislead. You want to do something about it. Doing something positive about negative things that are destroying your society is a very laudable goal. It will contribute to the overall happiness of society. But to do this, it is not simply enough to get angry and protest. You must also get smart. You need to put aside your prejudices, emotions and biases and apply a more rigorous method for developing your proposed solutions. Collect evidence, ask questions, recruit experts, solicit advice, analyze carefully, eliminate noise and concentrate on signal and test your conclusions. Accept challenges. I understand that some Occupy working groups are already doing this. The one that came out with the thorough, well researched response letter to the financial crisis is a case in point. But the ones that have to do with science and pharma are still mired in some very non-rigorous debate and pseudoscience that is not going to be helpful. It just looks stupid, from my perspective, and should get the same kind of treatment that Tim Minchin gave to Storm.

When I heard Minchin’s poem for the first time yesterday, I immediately thought of some people on the left I’ve met. What a waste. Without rigor, some of them do just come off looking like Dirty Fucking Hippies. They might be right but all their opponents see is incense, astrological charts and an easily lead mind that poses no threat to them. It is really important for the left to challenge the lazy thinking of some of its adherents and not be afraid to tell them when it’s utter crap. Policing your own will greatly enhance your reputation.

Ok, I’m off of my soapbox now. I do have to say that after the past couple of months, reviewing all of the material online and attending the Reason Rally yesterday, that I think the two major parties are engaging in poo-flinging and I don’t want any part in it anymore. I think I’m ready to finally give up the Democrats altogether, even though that’s where my sympathies are. The question is, are the Democratic party’s sympathies with its base? The overwhelming evidence of its actions over the past several election cycles is very clearly No. I’m ready for The New Enlightenment and where it’s going. That doesn’t mean I think Occupy is a waste of time. Far from it. I think Occupy has tremendous potential but only in that it needs to intersect with The New Enlightement and learn from it to make it an effective tool against growing authoritarianism. But there needs to be a new foundation laid upon which we base our worldview and the Reason Rally participates are actively engaging in doing it while the left is still struggling out of a fog. Greta Christina would probably recommend that we reach out to each group and form a coalition with each other. Let’s try that.

Here again is Tim Minchin’s poem Storm as he delivered it yesterday at The Reason Rally:

14 Responses

  1. Chili-cheese popcorn

    Non-microwaveable popcorn
    Vegetable oil
    2 tbsp butter
    Parmesan cheese
    Chili powder
    Smoked paprika

    Directions: pop corn in large pot on stove. If you don’t know how to do this, consult your parents for childhood memories of taking a brown paper grocery bag filled with popcorn to the drive-in theater where they ran around the playground at dusk in their pajamas. It will all come back to them. If your parents aren’t good resources, pour enough oil into the bottom of the pot to cover it in a thin layer. Add a single layer of popcorn kernels. Put a tight fitting lid on the pot and turn the gas up to high. Gently shake the corn while it’s popping (it will start to pop after a few minutes). When the popping slows down, remove it from heat. Melt butter in small bowl. Pour half over popcorn. Shake. Pour other half on popcorn. Shake. Now add the Parmesan cheese, chili powder and paprika, shaking between additions. There are no exact amounts but I add a coup,e tbsp of Kraft parm cheese. And about a teaspoon each of chili powder and paprika. Season with salt.
    Find a room with a lockable door. Get your book or you iPad and eat greedily.

  2. RD, where I disagree with you is your stance on vaccines and GM crops. I know you have been critical of some on the left for opposing these things and I want to know what are you gaining from your criticism? It reminds me of how the right wing says global warming is a myth. I just don’t get it – even if it was a myth is recycling or caring about your planet a bad thing? Why is caring about our health and being weary of GM crops a bad thing? There are scientists who have done studies on these things that show results contrary to your opinion, I don’t see what the need to discredit them is.

    • The case against vaccines causing autism and brain damage is closed. The British medical journal that first published allegations to that end retracted that publication and issued an apology. The original paper was submitted by a doctor who was involved with a law firm that was trying to find a basis for suing the vaccine manufacturers. Each one of the instances of brain damage cited in the paper were found to be caused by some other factor that had been documented by doctors attending the births or pediatricians who examined the children afterwards. Subsequently, there have been no studies that show a causal relationship between vaccines and autism or thimerosol and brain damage. There have been a few instances of side effects of older versions of a couple of vaccines but these are rare and new vaccines have greatly reduced their occurrence.
      Health professionals have been saying this for the last several years but parents refuse to believe it in spite of all of the evidence. At this point, those parents are behaving irresponsibly because they are reducing herd immunity and putting very young unvaccinated children and people with compromised immune systems at risk. Why are we supposed to give these non vaccinators so much respect when what they are saying has benn proven over and over and over again to be not true? They are just making people fearful for no good reason. I refuse to pander to ignoranc.
      As for GM crops, you may have legitimate concerns. But not everything that happens in the farmer’s field is the result of GM crops. The fact is that people have been doing genetic modification on crops before there was even domestic agriculture. We select plants that are resistant or have certain characteristics because they grow better or have better flavor or whatever. Now, science can short cut the modification process and insert the desired gene directly. Genetic modification is neither good or bad. It’s just an agricultural technique. You can legitimately ask if the modified crop will have a negative effect on the ecosystem, or body, and demand testing that rules it out definitively. But that doesn’t make the method of modification immoral or bad or dangerous in and of itself. Nor can you say that it is dangerous in all instances. You need to take it on a case by case basis.
      So, do you see what will happen if you start freaking out about GM crops to Monsanto? If you don’t have facts and evidence of danger, if all you have is fear and unverified studies, you can come off as an ignorant loon to the regulators, especially the regulators that know what is actually involved. You need to back up your claims in a way that the scientists will take seriously. And you shouldn’t assume that scientists are not on your side. Most of them are not in it for the money, because, frankly, you can’t make a living in research anymore.

  3. […] Filed under: General Tagged: Annie Laurie Gaylor, Beth Presswood, Cristina Rad, Dan Barker, Great Christina, jerry dewitt, Occupy, occupy wall street, reason rally, Richard Dawkins, rigor The Confluence […]

  4. This is the first I’ve heard of someone on the left claiming that GM corn kills bees. It made me wonder whether I’ve been traveling in the right left-wing circles to have never even heard this, ah ha ha ha . . .
    I looked up a whole pack of keywords – – bees colony collapse disorder gm corn – – and found this article which actually said something quite different.http://www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/february2012/insecticideforGMcorntoxicbees.php
    Only the very sloppiest reading of this without the excercise of any reading comprehension skills at all would read this to say ” GM corn is killing bees”. In briefest, the article tells about how large-scale seed sellers to large scale farmers are treating each seed by encapsulating it in a pellet of clay mixed with various desired chemicals. Lately one of those chemicals has been Bayer company’s (now-what-is-that-stuff-called?) which is a “neonicotinoid”. I am assuming a “neonicotinoid” is a synthetic analog or development from-off-of nicotine which was itself a traditional insecticide. Nicotine is what put the “Black” in Black Leaf Fourty. (By the way, one can make a homemade insecticidal tobacco juice nicotine-delivery-brew by boiling some tobacco for a while and straining the broth. But don’t touch tomato plants after touching tobacco or you risk giving them tobacco mosaic virus). And it turns out that strong evidence strongly suggests that Bayer’s “what-is-it” is a strong cause of colony collapse disorder. But that is the added chemical within the seed-encapsulating clay pellet. It has precisely nothing to do with the corn seed being GM and the two got linked in the article only because so much cornseed sold nowadays is GM’d. One could just as well encapsulate traditional conventional cornseed the same way with the same chemical.
    Don I now my tinfoil thinking cap and I wonder . . . did real leftists really misunderstand this issue so badly? Or did a ratfucker or ratfuckers inject this argument into the left-wing brainosphere to trick the leftists into looking bad? Anyway, I’ve said enough for now. The “GM” issue will come up again and give us opportunities to say more.

    • Black Leaf 40 (not “fourty”, sorry about that)http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/insect-mite/mevinphos-propargite/nicotine/insect-prof-nicotine.html
      tobacco mosaic virushttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_mosaic_virus

    • I was on DailyKos when the whole colony collapse disorder started making headlines and I guarantee you that there were lefties who swore that it was caused by GM food. I had several lengthy arguments with them about it. There wasn’t any proof that the corn was killing the bees but people wouldn’t believe it. And arguing with them reminded me of arguing with a fundy over evolution. It was no different. The anti-GM folks were willing to believe anything crazy with scanty evidence or no evidence at all. They just had faith that it was bad. There are lefties who swear that GM causes all the bad things in the world including teen pregnancy. (I’m just kidding about teen pregnancy)
      My point is not that GM crops are or aren’t bad for you. My point is that we now have the technology to do in a lab what humans have been doing in the field for thousands of years. Yes, we should study these things very carefully to make sure they aren’t harming the ecosystem. But there is nothing magically evil about GM crops nor necessarily does it follow that bad things will happen if you make them and sell them. Nor does this absolve the makers of damage that might occur. It is like any other technology.

      • One of many things I missed by not reading Kos. Clearly I was not moving in the right left-wing circles.

    • By the way, I’ve read that CCD was caused by a parasite. Here’s yet another likely culprit.

      • Little zombie flies . . . a nasty death. A perfect storm of proximate causes. What little I have read seems to indicate that something in the last few years has been weakening bee-immune-systems to the point where heretofore fought-off organisms are no longer fought-off.
        The bees appear to have bee-AIDS. One strong suspect in my mind remains Bayer’s neowhatevernoids. Another suspect muttered about the fringes is the rising level of ElectroMagnetic Wave soakdown from the everspreading proliferation of air-based communications system towers (cell phone/wi fi/ etc.) Another suspect I just recently saw mentioned once is that the bees themselves have been bred over the last few decades to be bigger hence more productive. But the bigger bees are somehow immune-weaker, have more “space” between their body-surface armor plates into which tiny parasites may enter and invade, etc.

        So if the apiologists were to ask me, not that anyone ever does, I would suggest experimentally banning Bayer’s insecticide from use over one large area, and re-introducing the older fashioned little-bee breeds over another large area, with a half-large zone of overlap between the two areas . . . like a live-action Venn Diagram. And just let ‘er rip same as now everywhere else . . . and see what happens.
        Also, I wonder, how do the Africanized Brazilian killer bees handle some of these same pressures? Brazilian beekeepers are beginning to say that it is possible to work with the killer bees, just very difficult.
        You need much stronger bee-suits and have to burn chicken feathers to make a nasty enough smoke to get the bees to load up with honey and hide in the hive.

        And you know, large parts of suburbia and semiburbia can very easily ban or avoid that Bayer neonicotinoid because no broadacre bulk commodity crops are grown in suburbia. So suburbia and parks and stuff may harbor relict fortress populations of honeybees until such time as the inducers of bee-weakness leading to CCD are identified, agreed upon, and banished from farm-country America.
        Probably the bee lobby and the bee-pollinated-crops lobby will be the
        sources of most painful pressure in that direction.

  5. “The original paper was submitted by a doctor who was involved with a law firm that was trying to find a basis for suing the vaccine manufacturers. Each one of the instances of brain damage cited in the paper were found to be caused by some other factor ”
    During the course of doing his “research” he received the equivalent of $750,000 USD from the law firms. A review of, IIRC, the 12 patients in the “study revealed that even the worthless data was fraudulent.

    • {{snort!}} That is taking fraud to a whole new level.
      And yet, there is a whole generation of parents out there who will not vaccinate their kids.
      “First thing we do, kill all the lawyers.”

  6. >I think I’m ready to finally give up the Democrats altogether, even though that’s where my sympathies are.

    Based on the amount of money I gave to Democrats before 2010, I still get a lot of phone calls, often from the candidates themselves. (I’m not particularly rich, by the way, but the amount to rate a personal phone call from a sitting congressperson in a competitive district is less than you probably think.)

    The first thing I do is tell them how disappointed I am in the current leadership, because the current Democratic leadership has sold out working people and works for the same financial interests as the Republicans. I tell them I am not giving money to Democrats any more unless they can tell me what they are going to do differently.

    If they had any sense they would hang up and quit wasting their time after that, but they don’t.

    The answer is always that they are going to tone down the partisan rhetoric and be more effective at reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans to get things done.

    I then explain that I don’t want Democrats to follow the Obama script of making regressive proposals and compromising with the Republicans to pass even more regressive legislation. If they can’t pass good legislation, then I would rather they get more gridlocked and more partisan and perhaps they should even consider cage matches to the death and ripping each other’s hearts out on national television, and leave us to get along with what’s left of the pre-Reagan legislation we have.

    The young lady I spoke to on Friday at least had the sense to say goodbye at that point, but most don’t. They are not briefed for this type of response, so as far as I can tell it never penetrates at all.

    • Well . . . the longer you can stand to keep one of them tied up on the phone, the less time that one has for doing damage by reaching others.

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