Sunday, August 28, 2016

Extreme's "There Is No God" to the #AtheistEar

When people claim there are no atheist anthems - as Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers did in our inaugural post - a quick Google search for a counterexample might lead one to this song... and fool you into thinking that you had found one.

Extreme put out their 1994 album Waiting For the Punchline when the Grunge movement was in full flower, and there is no doubt that this hurt them as far as album sales and publicity goes. Their previous album, III Sides to Every Story, had played around with the conflicts between War and Peace, and re-purposed slogans from both 60's peace movements and 90's era talk radio hawks to skewer the weaknesses of both sides. For my money, their genius at writing challenging songs that sound like they mean one thing while forcefully making the opposite point was undiminished when they made their 1994 record.

Punchline focuses heavily on religious themes, and calling out hypocrisy and criticizing the abuses and excesses of organized relition. But Extreme were never satisfied with making a straightforward statement. They prefer to mix multiple arguments up in their lyrics and let the listener come to their own conclusions - while playing coy with their own (often strong) opinions. The opening track of the album does exactly this with the notion that There Is No God.

(Full lyrics available here.)

On the surface, this song comes out fighting. It would be easy to take one listen and declare this to be an Atheist Hymn (giving the lie to Steve Martin's song from a couple of weeks ago).

The first verse is clearly attacking the kinds of charlatans who were making the news in the late 80's and 90's - people like Jim Bakker, who was convicted of mail fraud and other charges related to his televangelist ministries. People like Bakker had become an easy target, not just of the anti-religious, but also of churches like my own, which saw these sprawling, lavish "ministries" as something akin to the "money changers in the temple" who made Jesus so angry that he got a whip and drove them out. (See Matthew 21:11-13 for that story.)

So you're a self proclaimed messiah
or maybe a blasphemous liar
a clever hypnotic hoax
a hallowed heretic coax
who tells these stories so old
no, never the same twice told
speaking in distorted truths
i see that thomas wants some proof
did you come to heal the sick
with one more magician's trick
ye generation seeks a sign
while blind keeps leading the blind

If you stopped there, that could stand as a withering critique of religion in general. This verse probably sounds a lot like what you hear from atheists on the internet. But take note of one small detail before it gets away. Most of this song is framed in "you" statements: "You're a self proclaimed messiah" and "did YOU come to heal the sick..." But there is one line that stands out as an "I" statement: "I see that Thomas wants some proof."

That's important for two reasons. First, it signals very subtly that the listener and the singer aren't interpreting these words from the same point of view. The listener is primed to sympathize with one view ("there is no god") or the other ("who tells these stories so old...speaking in distorted truths"), but there is a third point of view here: that of the singer. (Remember, the band's previous album was divided into "III Sides" - Yours, Mine, and The Truth.)

He's putting a lot of ideas out there, but he hasn't actually taken a "side" yet. And while he is laying out the usual case against charlatans and false prophets - or at least fallible humans - he isn't necessarily owning those arguments. He's also distancing himself from the critique by referring to someone as "Thomas." If you're not familiar with your Bible, this is a clear reference to Doubting Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who refused to believe that the Messiah was back from the dead until he put his fingers in the nail holes and stuck his hand into the wound on his side. The gruesome point being that in the end, Jesus appeared to Thomas, let him touch him, and chided anyone else who insisted on that degree of proof as a fool.

(See John 20 for that story.)

To return to the song, the band goes on to establish in the chorus what seems to be a summation of the case against religion:
so you say there is no god
just a clever man's charade
a once upon a fairy tales fraud
has god made man or man made god
there is no god

Read superficially, this can be interpreted as an assertion that "there is no god" at the end of the verse. If you're a believer, you're probably past the point of caring or wanting to hear more at that point; but if you're a non-believer, you're primed to keep going. You might even be pumped and excited to see more "red meat" thrown out.

But settle down; because now that we've identified the singer hiding in the "I" statement, it becomes important to see that the whole chorus is a "you" statement. YOU say there is no god... and YOU follow that logic to its conclusion. But what does the singer really think?

The second verse seems to continue the scathing criticism, but halfway through, there is a slight twist. See if you spot it:

confused thy talk in parables
accused thou walk in parallels
a simple game of simon says
of this month's flavor sciences
today's fact, tomorrow's fiction
leave the rest to superstition
if knowledge comes from learning books
wisdom comes from discerning looks
a fool that says there is no god
don't feel for that sorry sod
who needs proof then he'll believe
i wonder if he's been deceived
there is no god

There, in the middle of what the average atheist might consider to be the crushing blow in the case against religion, the lyrics turn around on you. Pivoting on that line - wisdom comes from discerning looks - the singer delivers two couplets that seek to undo everything they have built up to this point. This verse begins by subtly shifting from describing the failings of religious hypocrisy to criticizing "this month's flavor sciences," and ending the song with the suggestion that requiring proof is foolish.

On its merits, this is a disappointing argument to make against atheism; particularly in the context of having flayed the disappointing failures of religion. The argument turns on the fact that science does not have "all of the answers" - a common criticism from religious apologists which fails to recognize "I don't know" as one of the most powerful answers that science has.

"I don't know, let's go find out," is what makes a scientific viewpoint so strong. That was the vital driving force behind the Age of Enlightenment, and the last two centuries of discovery and learning. Recognizing that we don't know everything is not foolish - it is the beginning of wisdom, and it is the reason that we take discerning looks. The flip side of that is that a person who thinks scientifically ought to be willing to change their mind if they discover new information or evidence that does a better job of describing reality.

That is what drives me to demand proof before accepting extraordinary claims. That is also what drove me to discard religion. I held out hope for many years, and looked for anyone making supernatural claims who could provide any evidence at all. Needless to say, what was offered was not sufficient. I suppose that puts me in the shoes of Doubting Thomas, as the singer criticized earlier.

But the mistake in those lines of the song lies in trying to shift the burden of proof onto the non-believer. It doesn't matter that the religious apologist has tried to distance themselves from "self-proclaimed messiahs" or "blasphemous liars," because in the end, they are still making the claim that there is a god, and what is missing from their argument is any reason to believe that there is. Instead of saying, "I don't know, let's go find out," they are saying, "I don't know for sure - but you don't either, therefore, I choose THIS - and you're a fool."

I shied away from open atheism for many years because I couldn't see past that agnostic predicament. Technically speaking, I might still be classified as "agnostic" because I admit that there is no way to prove the negative. But insisting that I'm a fool for not believing something that you can't even coherently articulate is not going to convince me that you know what you're talking about.

Looking at this song through that lens is rather disappointing. Still, twenty-plus years later, this band still rocks, and I appreciate the fact that they put together such a swaggering, sassy puzzle-box of a song. It makes me think, and it keeps me seeking... if only to someday find a real Atheist Anthem.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"How Great Thou Art" to an #AtheistEar

If ever there were a quintessential Hymn of Praise, this is it. Despite the countless doctrinal disagreements between the thousands of sects and denominations of Christianity, this song holds an appeal that they can all embrace - and every church I've visited has had it in their hymnal.

The original poem goes back to Swedish poet Carl Gustav Boberg, who wrote nine verses in 1885. It was translated into German in 1907, and countless times since then. The tune evolved to the version we recognize today by the time of its 1894 publication. Here's a version I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up:

(Lyrics for this version available here.)

Most versions, regardless of style, begin with a humble approach, quietly building through the first verse:
Hubble Deep Field - from Wikipedia

Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy art throughout the universe displayed.

I admit that even as a jaded non-believing adult, I still find this very stirring. I don't believe there is a supernatural being running the cosmos, and I don't believe in the mystical notion of a soul - but allowing for the poetic framing device attributing all of this universal awe to an omnipotent being, a powerful rendering of this verse can still stir my sense of wonder and evoke all of the beauty and majesty of the worlds that we see - worlds that we are still discovering.

Since this poem was first composed, we have discovered that the stars Boberg wrote about were just the beginning. Edwin Hubble, who helped prove that the "nebulae" his telescopes revealed were actually galaxies outside of the Milky Way, was born just four years after the poem was published. We've learned so much in the century since, just from looking up with better and better eyes; and we've even begun to visit more and more of the "worlds" in our own neighborhood.

We keep learning new things all the time, and finding new ways to explore deeper, further out, and farther back. No single person can fully comprehend or appreciate our universe - that's what this song is about. Containing that feeling from that moment of being overwhelmed, and seeking a way to label all of this amazement.
Then sings my soul my Saviour God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
To me, growing up, a performance of this song was always one of the purest and most universal expressions of that feeling. Even now, when I don't believe that any kind of supernatural being is out there, supposedly designing and controlling everything we see, I can appreciate the basic human need to praise something; to signify how impressed we are with something outside of ourselves.

Another inspiring omnipotent being
I don't believe actually exists
Of course, I also find it frustrating that people can't easily express that sense of wonder without tying it to their mythology. It's not just Christianity that does this; Islam, Judaism, all of the poly- and pan-theist faiths to one degree or another rely on an that sentiment for their existence. "If you feel that sense of wonder," they seem to argue, "that is proof of God (or gods)!"

I understand why they feel compelled to do that. It has never been easy for people to separate what they believe from reality. For many, the overwhelming feeling that I call a sense of wonder can be terrifying if there is no god there to protect them from it. They remind me of my grandmother the first time she took me to the Grand Canyon, and I rushed to the side to look down. Majesty and colossal beauty come with a certain amount of danger.

And that's how I relate to this song, now. I see it as a way for people to approach the vast, dark, amazing universe with a shield (if they need it), and express their amazement. There are many other, lesser known verses in this poem, but the best of them only serve as an excuse to return to the climactic moment of wonder.

There is certainly much to dissect, theologically, in those other verses. Some of them use the coming of Christ as a signifier of cleansing judgement; others look forward to escaping the pain and drudgery of daily life. We'll look at those ideas in other songs another day. All of them return us to the same place. But now that I don't feel saddled by the guilt that I was told to feel as a child, I can gloss past those verses if I want to. Today, I want to.

Today, I'd rather look up and marvel.

(The photo above contains a quote and image from Doctor Who, as played by Matt Smith; "The Universe is big, it's vast and complicated, and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.")

Update: I meant to include a couple of links to some people who regularly inspire my desire to marvel: Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy (on Slate), and Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang (on Medium, and other places).

Be careful - they're like a gateway drug to other astronomical coolness.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

New Feature: How Songs Strike My #AtheistEar

This poor, neglected blog has been very quiet for too long. Lately, I've only been moved to post here when something was bothering me, or when I needed to advertise something (like my book!), but I know you all deserve better than that. I keep trying to think of things I can do here that I want to do, so it doesn't become a chore, but also think of something that hasn't been done to death.

Then I heard this song by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers today:

...and that inspired me. (Lyrics are here, if you'd like to see them.)

I found it interesting for two reasons:
Hi, Flea!

First, I am an atheist, and I know that the premise of the song is not true. It's as not true as other common beliefs about atheists - that we're always angry, that we're nihilists, that we have no sense of wonder or appreciation for the world around us.

Second, a brilliant satirist like Steve Martin knows all of these things, too, and it's not too hard to dig into the lyrics and prove that.

Listening to (and laughing at) this song made me think of all of the other songs that have meant something to me over the years. There are "songs of faith" that either sound better to me now that I'm older, or that sound empty and awful now that I'm not a believer; there are "the blues" and "rock and roll" songs that console or inspire me; and there are songs that make me angry or trouble me.

Intellectual property rights aside, nobody owns these songs. The songs that get name-checked by the Steep Canyon Rangers don't only belong to one group. The way this song almost assigns the songs to different sects is funny to me, not just because of the casual way it caricatures each sect, but also because my Southern Baptist church sang so many of them when I was a kid. We loved Rock of Ages (not the Def Leppard one) and He Is Risen, and several of the other songs listed off as belonging to Pentecostals or Lutherans.

The thing that allowed us as Southern Baptists to appreciate songs that came out of rival Christian sects is called a Hermeneutic - "the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts." In other words, it doesn't just matter what the people who wrote the words thought they were saying; you have the ability to think and apply what you know to the words and decide how to appreciate them.

So what I'd like to start doing is share songs with you that highlight my own hermeneutic. If you've read my blog or my book, or follow me on Twitter, you probably have an inkling of how I look at the world. Because I say that I'm an atheist, you probably have some idea that you know how I view things - maybe you even equate atheism with "godless existentialism" as Steve Martin does in his song.

But if you follow along, listen to the words through my ears, and (this is important) ask me some questions, maybe you'll find out what I really think.

And maybe that will help you understand yourself a little better, too.

(Special thanks to Fred Clark, aka The Slacktivist, for everything he writes, but particularly for teaching me the word hermeneutic.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tad's Happy Funtime - the Novel

(Updating links, and a few remarks)
Add caption

This book represents this blog's "Greatest Hits," plus some additional stories I never got around to posting, all edited for make better reading. It is now available in paperback and ebook for the Kindle.

Obviously... I hope you'll go get yourself a copy. And obviously I hope that collective "you" in the previous sentence represents an absurdly large number of people.

You can help me reach an absurdly large number of people, by the way. Here are some ways you might do that, if you are so inclined:

1. You can do the usual social media stuff that you do with books that you like. (Is it okay if I assume you're going to like it? I had to read it like eight times, so I can't tell if I like it, or if I have Stockholm Syndrome. "It's you and me, book. You have just as much to lose as I do..."

2. You can write a review on Amazon. Apparently, Amazon is very finicky about the idea that friends and/or family would post a review just to make me look more popular than I am, so don't let on that we're such good friends. And be honest; I need at least ten reviews to unlock the mysteries of Being A Real Author(tm), but I don't think they have to be ten good reviews. (Of course, I may just sit here at my computer weeping at your 1-star review complaining that I left out the story about the time we went off and did karaoke in Germany, and you tried to do the "Material Girl" in what you called a "Scottish"'s not my fault you sounded more like Korn and scared those poor German country folk!)

3. You can ask your local library to buy my book. This is a real thing that many people forget about, and it would be a real boost to my exposure and bottom line. I know you might think it won't make much difference, but my friends, you are scattered to the farthest corners of the globe, and even if half of your libraries each bought a single copy, that would still be... I don't know, more than what I have currently sold after only three days on the market.

Right now, I know that someone in each of these places is reading this post:
North Carolina
Maryland (duh...)
Washington DC
Rhode Island
China (Hi, Dave!)
...and probably Russia, because I check my traffic sources, and someone there is reading this blog.

So please do spread the word.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Things Presently

I haven't posted here in a while, so I thought I'd give a little update on things.

Book Project #1

If you follow my other blog, Mightier Acorns, you probably know that I published a reproduction of the Callin Family History about this time last year. Technically, I have sold more than two dozen copies - but only four of those were purchased by other people. Still, it has sold about 4 times better than I expected!

I'm still chronicling my progress as I work on updating that book, so subscribe to Mightier Acorns to see my weekly updates.

Book Project #2

If you are a long-time reader of all of the stuff that I've posted here on Tad's Happy Funtime over the years, you might be pleased to know that I'm working with an editor to assemble some of my favorite pieces into a book bound for publishing some time this spring. (Or early summer...)

It's a collection of polished versions of some of the most popular stories I've posted here, plus a lot of new stuff that came up during the editing process. When I sent the first drafts (available via the "Tad's Happy Table of Malcontents" link over on the side, there) to Joanna, they prompted three main questions:

1. Who is this person you made a joke about, and why is that funny?
2. What is "it"?
3. No, seriously - why is that funny?

Explaining some of the context reminded me of more stories, so I put them into the book. (Oh...and I just remembered another...)

I will be self-publishing that on, just as I did the Callin Family History, and you can bet that I won't let you escape knowing when it is available.

Escape Artists Wiki-Boy

Those of you who know of my long-time, loyal fandom of the Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod fiction podcasts (now also including Cast of Wonders) will not be surprised to learn that I've joined the Army of Helper Interns as their wiki wrangler. If you don't know what I'm talking about, do visit the Escape Artists Wikia and explore - I think you'll be very glad you did!

(And I am still involved in another Wiki project, though I've been neglecting them for the sake of the book projects.)

So, that's not everything, but that's what I can say for certain. I have high hopes that a couple of stories I'm shopping around will sell and if they do, you can bet that I won't let you... well, you'll know it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mixed Reviews: Watchmen Between the World and Me

There are two important books that I want to tell you about: Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. I read the dead-tree version of Lee's book, borrowed from the library; I listened to Coates reading the audio version of his book, also borrowed from the library, and immediately went online and bought a copy to keep.

I hope I can help you understand why.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 13. It was a gut-punch that left me weeping in my room, reeling from my first confrontation with something like the fate of Tom Robinson.

That's important. Please hold onto that - it was the fate of Tom Robinson that affected me so strongly. It wasn't Atticus or Scout that stayed with me after I put the book down. And later, it was the face of Brock Peters, the actor who portrayed Tom Robinson in the movie, that haunted me when I had reason to think about these things.

To give you an idea of my context, at that age, I was just becoming aware of the complex world of American politics. I was coming to it as a passionate Christian fundamentalist. At 11, I had gone to the front of my Southern Baptist church and accepted Christ as my Savior, surprising even my parents with my fervor. My family lived out away from the city, so during those years, I had very little company. I spent most of my time devouring books and listening to Family Life Radio - especially to James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" program. I absorbed many of the lessons that my church and faith community impressed upon me and since this was the early 1980s, I developed a strong affection and admiration for Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that became his political base.

In my world, all of these moral influences were unified. They were all about democracy and fairness, and the shining city of purity on the hill. Our Sunday School had always sung about Jesus loving all the children of the world - red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight - and I never questioned that fairness and equality were the cornerstones of being an American Christian.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

Looking back thirty years, I can see now why I found that book so easy to read. Maycomb was a less lonely version of the environment I grew up in; Scout and Jem were a lot like my sister and I; Scout reminded everyone of my grandmother, who grew up in Depression-era Arizona. And the theme of the book - the "loss of innocence" symbolized by the titular Mockingbird - tracked with what I was going through in my life. I related to her imagined isolation from her friends; I related to her fear of the isolated Boo Radley; I related to her growing awareness of the unreliable control that others have over their savagery as the townspeople turned on her father for doing what was right.

Just as Scout had to face the uncomfortable realities of the world, I was being exposed to the world through the filter of my radio and I was learning how dangerous and uncomfortable it really was out there. I heard all about the threats to our society presented by drugs, abortion, and devil worshipers (oh, you better believe I hung on Mike Warnke's every word!) - and while it was subtle, I was being taught, too, that the people behind these threats used arguments for "equality" to force their way through our righteous defenses and erode the brains and souls of our children.

Yes, I thought that way. At age 11.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

The first time I read this book, I was primed to think that the happy ending required Tom's acquittal and vindication. I held out hope that Atticus Finch's heroic defense would convince the town to see Tom's innocence, and that they would be forced to recognize the evil of the social stratification that Atticus explained to Scout - that system where white men sit at the top, and black women sit at the bottom, and those on each tier in between can only keep their status by forcing those "below" them to "keep their place."

I thought for years afterward that Tom's conviction was the "loss of innocence" symbolized in the title. I thought that the courage Atticus showed in defending him was part of the struggle to tear down that social ladder. I was naive, but to my credit that interpretation never sat well with me, and as I grew out of this phase of my life, and learned more about America's real racial history - and the role American Christians played in it - I had to accept a truth that many readers of Go Set A Watchman apparently never did. I had to recognize that the picture of equality I had in my head, and the idea of tearing down that unfair social ladder, were not actually part of the American Dream that Atticus Finch - or my white, evangelical tribe - defended. I had a choice not to accept that truth - but I did.

Because I could not ignore the fate of Tom Robinson.

Tom Robinson was an innocent man convicted by people who cared less about the truth of whether he committed the crime he was accused of than they did about the place he occupied on the social ladder, and his sin was that he tried to take control over his fate away from them. Tom Robinson, we learn from Atticus, tried to run away. To Atticus, this was Tom Robinson's folly - evidence that he and those like him were not ready to join society, because they could not trust the system - could not trust Atticus.

Tom's choice to run was an act that Thomas Jefferson praised and enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence when he said, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government..."

But when Tom tried to throw off such Government, even Atticus condemned him for it. Atticus was wrong, and even though it was a wistful, paternalistic condemnation, it was still unjust. And a man was dead for the sake of principles of pride that Atticus articulates later in Watchman. Pride that requires that someone be "below" for someone else to have their Dream. He died, not because he deserved it, but because someone believed their race required his death to maintain their pride.

Tom Robinson was shot to death "off camera," so that the reader would learn this about Atticus as he explained the events to Scout.

For those millions of readers who didn't take away the same lesson that I did, they continued to view Atticus Finch as a moral hero. They saw him taking the stand he did as defending the innocent Mockingbird, and felt betrayed when Watchman presented a very different picture. It was not something they were ready for.

In the new book, the reader follows Jean Louise as she returns to Maycomb for a visit, and she sees Atticus in a situation that literally turns her worldview inside out. Most of the reviews I read expressed shock and revulsion that Harper Lee "turned the heroic Atticus into a racist" - and I think Jean Louise would agree with that sentiment. The entire second half of Watchman shows her dealing with that very reaction, and her sense that Atticus had betrayed her deeply, fundamentally, and for the whole of her life.

But Atticus did not change between the first and second books.

The Atticus of Watchman is the same heroic defender of what he sees as right that he always was. If anything, I learned from Watchman that Atticus does believe that the social ladder that victimized Tom Robinson in the first book should be destroyed...eventually. But he believes that it is dangerous and counter-productive to do so in a way that upsets those on that ladder. He spends the second half of Watchman trying to convince Jean Louise that the way to true equality is to make the negroes (his word, not mine) earn their way up.

"Honey," he says to Jean Louise, "you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people...They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of 'em voting than ever before."

What he fails to take into account is that "white ways" are not purely the good and noble things that he would like to believe them to be - any more than singing "Jesus loves the little children" in Sunday School means that the evangelical culture I was part of gave a damn about the life of someone like Tom Robinson. Jean Louise tries to articulate what is wrong with Atticus's point of view, but I sympathize with the difficulty she faces. It's a pervasive, self-assured kind of bigotry, compounded by thinking itself to be kind and generous. She lashes out, curses at him, but pulls her punches because, after all, this is her Atticus. Finally, she compares his actions to those of Hitler and Stalin, and he just smiles, as if he thinks she is exaggerating. But she persists:

"You're no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. You just try to tell 'em, 'Look, be good. Behave yourselves. If you're good and mind us, you can get a lot out of life, but if you don't mind us, we will give you nothing and take away what we've already given you.' ...How they're as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they're human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week's decency."

There is barely a mention of the fate of Tom Robinson in Watchman - he is referenced by Jean Louise a few pages before in this same scene as "that rape case" - but his ghost hung over this book as I read it, forcing me to stare into that gap between "denial that they're human" and "a week's decency" and see the pile of bodies at the bottom.

But Tom Robinson is a fictional character.

It is easy for someone like me to stand up for fictional people, because they don't have a lot of messy reality behind them. They aren't necessarily on the streets of my city, clashing with police. They have only the past that we are told about, and whatever pity their stories might evoke, our sense of morality requires nothing more than saying that it's awful what happened to them before we move on to the next book on our summer reading list.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, is a real person. He offers another book that reminds us that Tom Robinson's fate is uncomfortably real. Commonly real. Unjustifiably real. In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his teen-aged son that describes his experiences on that rung of the social ladder that Atticus defends as Coates's right and proper place.

Coates begins his book by describing to his son the experience of appearing on a news show and being asked by the host "why I felt that white America's progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence." He uses that construction - "people who believe that they are white" - because he knows something that the people at the top of the social ladder don't want to know about themselves. He knows that for all of the high-minded talk about equality being part of the American Dream, as long as some see themselves as part of the "top", they will always require someone to be beneath them. And he also knows from a lifetime of experience that as long as those at the "top" consider themselves to be "white", no one with black skin can avoid being shoved down that ladder.

He knows that the cornerstone of the American Dream is made out of the bodies of those we keep at the bottom of the ladder, in the gap between their humanity and our kindness. That is his theme, and I have known this lesson since I learned it as a child, reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

I recognized that painful truth about the cornerstone of my American Dream back then, and it set me on the course of questioning that made me what I am today. Holding my Dream accountable for the damage it caused meant shedding beliefs that weren't based in reality. My church was my Atticus Finch - kindly, well-intentioned, morally straight, loving...and wrong. It meant walking away from the childish faith I was raised to accept, and recognizing that the world we are in is only as scary and dangerous as we make it.

When I read Between the World and Me, I have the same choice before me again - the same choice that you have now: "Is my dream to actually realize the equality and fairness that I say I hold dear, or is it to keep climbing and the ladder while pretending that I am not hurting anyone?"

When Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son about the ways that Americans "who believe that they are white" have systematically deprived him and people like him of control over the very security of his own body, he is talking about that choice. He expresses in eloquent and straightforward words the same idea that the fictional Tom Robinson expressed by trying to run away from those people. "I am not safe as long as you don't view me as a person." And "I am not safe as long as you view me as a threat to your Dream."

Now I am going to tell you the main idea of this review. I buried the lede here because I knew that if I put it up front that you would not read it. But I want you to understand why so many people did not like Go Set a Watchman, and why so many of the people who have based the safety of their own bodies and the bodies of their children on the idea that they are "white" will reject Coates's book and the ideas in it. I want you to confront the fate of Tom Robinson, and the evil honor of Atticus Finch, and I want you to set one fact in the center of all of these things. Let this be your new cornerstone:

I, as a 13-year-old white boy, had the luxury of weeping in my room over the vileness of what happened to Tom Robinson...and then putting the book down in my large, safe room, and turning on a radio that told me I was good, and noble, and that my tribe was all for fairness and equality. At the same time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 10-year-old black boy, risked death every day just going to and from school on the streets of Baltimore. He could not simply put that book down, and do something else.

That is what is meant by the phrase "white privilege". That difference in our dreams - one boy dreaming of being safe, the other dreaming that his privilege has nothing to do with putting the first boy in his place - is the gap between us.

The beauty of Between the World and Me is that, as a letter to his son, Coates is not lecturing White America on how it should behave. He talks about having been a radical when he was younger, but he is no longer calling for a "revolution." He is explaining to his son how America behaves, and why, and he explains how his life wound its way from the dangers of his old neighborhood to a place where he could have and raise a son. He describes the ways he used to think, and ideas he explored as a young man - ideas that those who must believe they are white hold up as evidence that people like Coates are "not ready" to join the rest of us on these higher rungs of this ladder - and how even though he outgrew that and succeeded, so that he could give his son privileges associated with the Dream, it is his son's job to be on guard. There is still danger in simply being a black man around people who need to believe they are white.

Coates does describe the tragedies that are happening right now, in Ferguson and Baltimore; tragedies that white privilege allows so many of us to pretend aren't happening or aren't our fault because we have the luxury to put down the book, or turn off the TV, and do something else. But these examples are not rallying points - they are simply the mirror held up to the American Dream, and to Dreamers who are not unlike Atticus Finch in despising the disorder more than the cause. He doesn't try to take away from their sense of their own nobility, but because of the million thoughtless ways Dreamers have denied the cost of their Dream, he has to tell his son to beware of them.

"I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom...But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos."
I love that passage in particular - that the Dreamers "will have to learn to struggle for themselves" - because it echoes and answers the paternalistic condescension of Atticus Finch with almost his own words, and turns them both into a plea for patience and a defiant claim of maturity. It simultaneously urges the wisdom of self-reliance, the necessity of patience, and the promise of forgiveness.

When David Brooks read Between the World and Me, he saw the importance of the book, but he also saw the attack on the American Dream, and chided Coates for that attack. What I saw was that my neighbor is being hurt by a Dream that harms both of us. Brooks asks "Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?" In a way, he answers his own question a few paragraphs later - but he thinks that the choice is between the Dream and no dream. I see that what Coates demands is a different choice: if the Dream is a lie, work on a better reality. That goal is, by definition, a different dream.

Brooks frames his question as if "disagreement" is merely an intellectual exercise. But I can see, just watching the news, that this goes beyond philosophy. Tom Robinson was shot "off camera" but in just the past few years, an alarming number of black men have been shot, choked, and beaten to death on and off camera. And the same people who rail against the arbitrary tyranny of the State when they are inconvenienced or have to pay taxes suddenly become the purest advocates of unquestioning respect for authority when they are confronted with this raw brutality. It's not mere "disagreement" - it's philosophical alchemy!

That's why Coates expresses rage; because the effect of "disagreeing" is far more devastating to him and his children than it is to me and mine. I see my white friends and neighbors stroking their guns and lustfully warning that the next time there is trouble, "they might come up our way - and we'll be ready!" Somehow, they express this fear almost joyfully - as if they've been waiting for the chance to openly defend their Dream. They clearly disagree with Coates's premise - and they go further, defending the system of prisons and ghettos that they clearly believe the inhabitants belong in. They display their willful blindness to their own privilege, as well as the willful ignorance of their own contribution to the trouble that is brewing. Their joyful fear is more horrible to me than the crowds who might be gathering in downtown Baltimore, waiting for the spark from a pending trial.

When you read Between the World and Me, you can see why Atticus Finch was wrong. No, that's not quite right, because Atticus was not real. You and I are real, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is not Tom Robinson any more than I am Scout. While we both live in Baltimore, and are roughly the same age, and both love writing and love our children, there is very little else that ties us together other than the roles we have played in our lives - he as a proud, intelligent black man, and I as a privileged, if not wealthy, white man. Brooks and my neighbors would have me take offense that Coates is accusing me of building my life on his body. But when I read his letter to his son, I see more in him that I love and value than I have seen lately in the people who share my privilege.

When you read Between the World and Me, you should see why we are wrong to allow ourselves to exercise the privilege of putting down our book and going about some other business. You might disagree with minor semantic points, but you may not ignore the facts. "White privilege" is choosing to believe you are white, and choosing to prop up a fading Dream on the bones of our friends and neighbors, when our friends and neighbors desperately need us to do something else.

They need us to wake up, and show a week's decency. Preferably every week.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What You Won't See On the News

We spent the afternoon walking Baltimore.

I am more afraid of the consequences of my wife knowing that than I was that we would get hurt. And if you stop reading here, I hope that thought stays with you: the fact that there is no reason to be afraid.

We started in Harbor East - this is the upscale centerpiece of the downtown area, where my daughter works. For the past several days, National Guard troops have been lining these streets, carrying AR-15s, looking bored, and watching yuppies and hipsters scurry back and forth from Whole Foods and the wine shop to the ritzy hotels and apartment buildings.

First, we went west, towards the Inner Harbor. We waved at Mr. Trash Wheel (I'm a huge fan), and we headed over the bridge by the National Aquarium. There were probably close to 100 soldiers and cops lining Pratt Street, shoulder to shoulder, looking up the empty streets toward City Hall. To call their apparel "full riot gear" seems an understatement; there were half a dozen carrying gas guns and bandoleers of tear gas.

We said hello to some of the soldiers (and airmen!), and we were not afraid.

There were a lot of civilians, like us, roaming nervously along the water and eyeing the situation. We walked down past where the forces stood arrayed against what might come, and found a crosswalk. On the other side of Pratt, there were almost no cars, and very few people. There were a few young, 20-something black men, mostly in pairs, walking towards us, talking about the protest march.

We said hello to them, and we (and they) were not afraid.

At City Hall, there were a lot of people milling around. Most of them were either black and holding hand lettered signs, or they were with the press. There were a couple of groups on the side streets, that appeared to be part of different religious organizations, speaking to each other over portable microphones, but they were out of sight of the media.

The news vans were packed bumper to bumper around the square, and easy-up tents were erected over sound boards, lighting equipment, and scurrying techs. There were dozens and dozens of people there, but the mood was light; a lot of the folks had their kids with them. Two adorable twin girls were with their dad, and their schnauzer; they carried balloons that said "All Lives Matter," and they posed by the barricades in front of the lines of Guardsmen while their dad took their pictures. Then they turned and waved and blew kisses at the soldiers.

I told them that I liked their balloons, and none of us were afraid.

We followed the barricades up Gay Street, and under the Jones Falls overpass at Saratoga. Brent bought two "Black Lives Matter" shirts from a guy hanging out and selling them from his car. We live in the future, so of course his phone had the square thing for swiping credit cards. A black lady approached me and asked if the shirts came in any other colors, and I told her that I had only seen them in white. 

We kind of looked at each other, both thinking the same thing, and I think both of our mouths twitched a little bit, not quite sure enough of each other to laugh about it outright - but the point is, we weren't afraid.

Back up on President Street, we stood across from the police headquarters; Fayette was closed and barricaded, and there were a couple of Guards and a cop taking a break and eating some dinner - behind them, on the wall of the police headquarters was a huge recruitment banner.
A photo posted by Tad Callin (@tadmaster69) on
We roamed back toward the car, stopping for some impulse book shopping. (I bought a nifty edition of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and selected writings to include the Federalist Papers and Common Sense. I wish more of our leaders would read them.) We dropped the books off at the car, chatted with some soldiers and airmen who were getting some food, and headed eastward from Harbor East towards Fells Point.

The soldiers were less prevalent, but they were still there - Humvees were parked down side streets, and patrols of one or two Guards strolled around their assigned blocks along the cobbled brick streets, while cover bands blasted their versions of Bob Marley, 311, and Rusted Root songs. The patrons weren't numerous, but there was a kind of defiant cheerfulness about them.

My favorite was this guy, though (note the Hummer and soldiers in the background):
A video posted by lydiandude (@lydiandude) on

We weren't afraid.

Why not?

Partly because we're privileged. I have to acknowledge that - two white guys and a white girl walking the streets (two of them in "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts) aren't going to get looked at twice by any of the police or soldiers. The fact that we're veterans doesn't hurt - the Network Warfare guy and I hit it off in the Five Guys, and were instant buddies. And even before buying the shirts, none of the black people protesting gave us any reason to feel uncomfortable in our city - we were all neighbors, equally free to be in the public square, and equally exasperated with the media circus.

But the main reason we weren't afraid was because the people who are angry are not angry at us.

The national news has made much of our city's story this week, but for all of the hand wringing and race baiting in the national media, they have failed utterly to tell you the truth about Baltimore. And that truth is this:

Baltimore is full of angry black citizens who are fed up with having their friends, family, and neighbors killed in police custody. They're tired of the corruption of their police department, and the failures of city leaders - not just recently, but for a long time, now. (2013 example, 2012 example, another 2013 example, and many more from the Baltimore Sun files.) If you want to understand this situation, you must read David Simon's take, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's piece.

While the rioting is certainly a Bad Thing, and in no way justified, it isn't the main thing that has happened here this week. A lot of people behaved badly, but focusing on that violence is misleading. Reporting only that is an example of saying something that is factually true while still being dishonest - because as many have pointed out, the same people pouring out their derision on the rioters have said nothing at all about the 100 people who died in the custody of the Baltimore police since 2010. And here's the uncomfortable truth about the riots:

They were the smallest part of this week's events.

The rioting was limited to one night - and while I can't point you to a news source that says this, it seems to me from reading the Facebook and Twitter posts of friends and friends' friends that what happened at Mondawmin Mall - the spark that set off the violence and looting - was also due to actions taken by the police. There were hundreds of school kids who were trapped on the streets because the city suspended bus services, and they had no way to get home from school. The police - in full riot gear - started busting up groups of them, and to indulge in an understatement, things got way out of control.

As I heard it told, there were about 250 looters arrested - and most of them were released after 47 hours, because even with a special order extended the time allowed for submitting charges, there weren't enough commissioners to do the paperwork, and they were set free. That tells me that these "riots" that have been hyped and fretted over were not the central event here. And I only hope that as the charges against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray are taken to court, that the media attention will stay focused on that, instead of on the rash behavior of one or two nights.

Because the discussion that needs to happen is about repairing trust in the local government and law enforcement. I hope that the angry people I saw in the square outside city hall today will stay involved, and hold their local representatives accountable for making these changes. I hope that the rightfully outraged, and non-violent citizens of all ethnic backgrounds in the city will ignore their privileged, suburban critics and keep demanding that accountability.

And I don't expect it, but I hope all of my friends and neighbors in the surrounding county areas will stop foaming at the mouth about "Castle doctrine" while they stroke their guns. Fantasizing about getting the chance to take a shot at their fellow citizens and blowing racist dog-whistles on social media is not going to solve problems for anyone; I hope that instead, they'll remember that they're supposed to be models for good behavior - especially the Scout leaders - not pouring fuel on the fire that brought the National Guard to our streets.

Yes, of course we should support the hard working police - the three of us went out on the streets today in part to do just that - but those police are working hard for us...and "us" should include everyone who lives here. That isn't the case, yet, and the protesters are out there on the streets to make sure that happens. Maybe you are one of the people who finds their anger and their protesting scary, but you're only getting a taste of the fear they live with all the time.

Yes, it's #NotAllPolice that are the problem, but it only takes one (or sometimes six) to do irreparable damage, and it's clear that more needs to be done to weed out those "bad apples".

When that happens, none of us will need to be afraid.