Campaign 60% funded! Just 5 days left!

Hi folks,

The crowdfunding campaign to fund the release of A Place to Remember the Dead is almost over!  All in all, it’s been a very gratifying, touching, humbling experience.  Thank you so much to everyone who’s helped out.

Right now, we’re sitting at 60% funded, with four days left on the clock.  It’s not an all-or-nothing campaign; I’ll still get the money raised even if we don’t reach 100%.  I’m prepared to adjust my budget and goals for this release based on that, but I’m still hopeful that we can make it here in the last couple days.  Also, Indiegogo takes a smaller cut if you meet your target, so I’d really like to do that to maximize the value of everyone’s contributions.

Please check it out if you haven’t yet!  Remember that for donations of $5, $10, giving is essentially like pre-ordering the album, except you actually get the digital download months in advance of the official release.  Thanks everyone!!

<3

Shareef

Indiegogo campaign is now up!

Dear blog readers,

Gosh, I’d meant to post something here last Friday when the campaign went live, but you know how it goes.  Anyway, I’m thrilled to report that as of this writing, we’re already more than 21% funded! :D

There’s a whole pitch on the campaign page, but the long and short of it is that I’m incredibly proud of this record (you knew that already) and I’d be thrilled and gratified if you helped out at any level (probably knew that too).

Also note that any donation of $5 or up has a reward of an advance digital download.  Basically it’s kind of like pre-ordering the album, but better, because you get to hear it months in advance of the ‘official’ release.

Thanks folks!

 

Any comrades wanna sing on my song about J28?

Hey everyone,

So I’ve been in the studio recording for my next full-length album for a few weeks now, and am probably overdue for an update on how that’s all going.  But there’s a more immediate thing I wanna tell you about first, and potentially get some of y’all involved in.

As you probably know, I was involved in the Occupy Oakland action and mass arrest that happened on January 28 of last year, and I wrote a song about it.  You can hear a live version of it here, and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post (obvious trigger warning for the events of that day, and police repression generally).  This is definitely a stand-up-fight-back kind of song, so I’d like to invite comrades, radicals, anyone involved in the struggle to be a part of the recording that we’re about to make.

What this will basically entail is showing up this Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM to Shipwreck Studio in Oakland, all standing in a room together, and singing/shouting along to some parts of the song.  Definitely the last verse, maybe some other lines here and there too.  In the final mix your own individual voice won’t really be distinguishable, it’ll just sound like a crowd.  The whole process will probably take a few hours.

Other things to note: I can’t pay you.  I do intend to make the song available for free download, as I did with the first song I wrote about Occupy, “Witness”, but it will also be included on my album, which I will be selling (but also giving away a lot, as I tend to do).

Anyway, if you’re interested and available, I would love for people to be involved in the archiving of this song.  Email me at shareef at shareefali dot com.  The only preparation is to listen to the song once or twice with the words; it has changed a little since the live recording above, but I’ll send a more current version once we’re confirmed.

Excited to share this with you.

Shareef

*   *   *   *   *

“Stone’s Throw (J28)”

“The fight is dead,” the riot cop said as he sat me on the curb
with my cramping wrists, piss and apple cider vinegar.
Though I’m trembling still, from nerves and chill, I will have to call your bluff
if you think you can stop this struggle with a pair of ziptie cuffs.

A clear sky storm of flash-bangs, beanbags, hazy and surreal;
a scarlet letter spray-painted on a makeshift trashcan shield.
But they tossed our stuff before they loaded us on a stolen public bus:
goggles and a spray bottle, the only LAW I trust.

They held us twenty to a tank of cold concrete and steel,
where you’ll lose your mind trying to keep time by counting orange peels.
I don’t know which is worse, missing the warm bath of daylight,
or waking every hour to the same fluorescent night.

I got released to a fast food feast on the front steps of the jail,
but we know our work ain’t finished until we empty every cell.
So you can ban us from the Plaza, stay away from City Hall,
but sure as we burned that flag, that edifice is gonna fall!

So we rage on like a Greece fire, I heard they torched a bank today.
And we raise a fist to Cairo, we’re just a stone’s throw away.
If you’ve got a pot to piss in, don’t be afraid to call it black,
or you’ll never break the kettle and take your city back.

Praise!

I’m in the process of transferring things over to my newly redesigned site on WordPress, and so two of my bits of ‘praise’ that are preserved in the form of screenshots need to find a home here.  So, reliving past glories, here’s the time Amanda Palmer retweeted my Occupy song (hilarious mentions before and after left in, of course):

amandapalmerRT

 

And here’s some sweet words that Pete Kane said about the Folksonomy on the MSN Postbox blog (which honestly is awful and completely unviewable, let alone permalink-able):

msn

Too late for a New Year / 2012 retrospective post? Too bad.

I’m writing this from my friend’s laundry room in Oklahoma City.  I’m in the midst of a slow drive from St. Louis back to Oakland, so it’s been great to see friends but difficult to find downtime to write.

Twenty-twelve.  What a year.

Most of all, this past year was marked by politics, a shift that had begun with my involvement with Occupy in the fall of 2011 but has since deepened into a more serious devotion to radical change.  Of course there was no one moment, but probably the single most catalytic step was J28: my arrest, recovery and reflection, and recommitment to the struggle.  As I’ve continued down this road, I’ve found a new circle of friends and comrades who are on the same path that I am, though some further ahead.  I’m incredibly enriched and gratified to know that I’m part of a heritage of folks fighting for justice and liberation.  Most of all, I want to shout out to my dear friend Brian Belknap, whose experience and wisdom has been a huge inspiration on this journey.

(Here I’m gonna do that thing you should never do and give a disclaimer.  At the height of the Occupy movement, I was blogging regularly, seeing myself as some kind of arsehole citizen documentarian.  I haven’t gone back and reread many of these entries, but I’m certain that they’re riddled with naivete and contradiction.  But I’ve left them up, partly for transparency’s sake, but mostly because I think they may actually have some value as a real-time record of one stumbling into radical politics.)

I also got married this year, which surprised no one but was more delightful than expected.  I turned thirty, and promptly gained thirty pounds, which might have something to do with the fact that I also retired from vegetarianism after nine years (if you think I feel like telling you why right now, think again).

As for my music goals.

I had my second most prolific year yet as a songwriter (after 2010), and I daresay that some of them are my best yet.  Which I say every year!  I know I’m on the verge of sounding obnoxiously perky, but I feel like I have every reason to believe my best is still ahead of me, and I feel very thankful for that.

Here’s the list:

  1. Stone’s Throw (#J28)
  2. Nancy (Death To Capital)
  3. Fashion Survivor
  4. Claire, Luz, Light
  5. There’s A Reason To My Rage, There’s A Folly To My Fear
  6. Suffer Song
  7. I Want To Kiss Death
  8. Reno
  9. Marigny Love Song

Six of these will be on the new album!  More on that in a little bit.

—–

(continuing writing from Austin, TX)

I did two Northwest tours this year.  I’m starting to get into the rhythm of working that circuit every six months or so.  I also played awesome one-off shows in New Orleans and St. Louis.

Not least of all, I got myself fired from a job I had grown to hate, and have been happier ever since!

Okay.  Now I really have just one goal for the year.  And that’s to record a new full-length album, the best one yet, and to do a really, really good promotion for its release in the fall.

It’s hard to convey how excited I am about this.  I think I’ve got a more consistent body of great songs ready to lay down than I have ever before.  And the arrangements I’ve been playing with over the past year, with Maia Papaya on upright bass and vocals, or Brian on lap steel, are I think at just the right level for these tunes.  They add a great deal of richness and soul without covering up the song.  Not least of all, I’m planning to take my time with the recording process, not rush anything, and even spring for mastering.  Shoot, maybe I should put this mug out on vinyl, for all that…

This is the first time I’m not trying to rush a record out the door, in time for tour, for a farewell show, etc.  I love the last three records I (and the Folksonomy) have put out, but there are of course moments that could have been better executed, as there always will be.  But I do have the luxury this time of minimizing them by having time to reflect.  And on the promotion end, I can really give myself a good six months or so to put together a really solid campaign and make the biggest splash possible.

Oh, I guess I do have other goals too, like exercising and being a good stay-at-home partner and of course continuing to tour the Northwest and such.  But this is the main one, I really am itching to share this record with you.  I think it’s gonna be so good!  With all that ahead of me, I’m really just itching to get back to the Bay and dig in.  But right now I’m gonna go explore Austin.

xoxo

Shareef Ali

Why I’m Not Voting For Obama

I won’t be voting for Barack Obama on Election Day.  In writing this I don’t expect to persuade anyone to do the same, but I do want to talk about my reasons.  There have been a few good pieces written along these lines, and I won’t add much that hasn’t been said already.  But I think it’s important for this piece to get written as many times as possible.

First off: I was a huge Obama supporter in 2008.  Probably as enthusiastic as you can be without being a major donor or actually working for the campaign.  I read both The Audacity Of Hope and Dreams From My Father, and was deeply moved by the latter (which I still hold to be a beautifully written and candid account of an individual’s search for their heritage—notably, an individual who had yet to run for any political office).  There were a number of his campaign promises that sounded good on their face to me, and a number of troubling positions and aspects of his record that I mostly turned a blind eye towards; ultimately, I did what many people do, and decided whom to support based on how much I felt like I related to the candidate.  I had Obama stickers on my car, mentioned him in a song, and traveled to Nevada for three weekends in September and October to canvass for the Democratic ticket in the Reno metro area.  When he won, I shared in the revelry.

Though I’m slightly embarrassed now by the uncritical loyalty I exhibited at that time, I can’t say I regret it, any more than I regret the romance I began with a fellow Obama campaign volunteer—and that for months I tried to save, before finally accepting the irreconcilable differences.  As with that relationship, there was disillusionment by degrees, and though I’ll never go back, I can still relate to the person I was at the beginning, with my wishful thinking, good faith and best intentions.  I think people like that are the folks that we radicals need to be talking to and making our case.

So I am limiting my intended audience for this piece to those people.  Folks who may have supported Obama in the past, who are disappointed and disgusted with this administration, but feel like they have to pull the lever for him anyway.  Folks who genuinely believe that choosing the Lesser of Two Evils is their only option.  I’ve come to believe that not only do we have other options, but that lesser-evil thinking is an insidious trap that ties our hands against building towards real change.

Before we begin, there are two defenses of Obama that I reject outright and refuse to debate.  The first is that there’s a meaningful difference between what he and his administration do and what he “wants to do”.  There is no way to know with any accuracy what distance might lie between the man’s private values and his marching orders, but it’s irrelevant anyhow: when we are talking about policy choices that have the power to save or end lives, there is only the deed.  The other is the trope that Obama has done “the best he can do” with a hostile Republican Congress.  Only a person ignorant of Obama’s actual record could credulously assert this; these people need to educate themselves, but that’s not my goal here today.

My disillusionment with Obama began with his extension of the Bush tax cuts, deepened when he put Social Security and Medicare on the bargaining table; but the assassination of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was the final straw for me.  I remember I was at the first day of Occupy Austin when another protester told me about this; jaded though I already was, it sounded so insane to me that I assumed he was paranoid and delusional.  But the timing was serendipitous; at just the moment when my willingness to uneasily fall in line broke, the Occupy movement erupted and created the space for me to break from the Democratic Party and know I was not alone in my conscientious objection.  Once I had accepted and grieved my long-misplaced faith, I found there were many facts about Obama that I could face with much less cognitive and moral dissonance.

Most of my liberal and progressive friends will agree Obama has done some terrible things, but maintain that however bad Obama has been or might become, his opponent will be significantly worse.   A corollary of this is that there is a way to ‘strategically’ support Obama’s reelection, ostensibly to create conditions within the system that will respond more favorably to agitation from without.

The first idea, that a Republican administration will always be so much more odious than a Democratic one that the latter must be supported, has an apparently simple proof in contrasting the campaign rhetoric of the candidates.  But there’s actually no way to assert this with honest certainty.  Besides the fact that campaigns by design highlight difference and erase agreement, there’s the simple matter that we don’t actually have a time machine, dimensional jumper or any other device that would let us see just how abysmal the alternate reality would have been.  We don’t and can’t know, for instance, whether President John McCain would have dramatically increased the number of drone strikes and deportations of undocumented folks.  It’s possible, but it’s also possible—if we believe Obama’s own line of criticism from 2008—that McCain would have been exactly the same on these two issues as his predecessor: a pitiful standard to hold, but one of which Obama still falls objectively and significantly short.

The second part, the notion that we can support Obama at the ballot box and then resist him in the streets—that we can choose an easier opponent, in other words—undermines itself.  When you disapprove of someone’s positions, but ‘strategically’ support them anyway, you have just incentivized their impunity.  This is even truer when we fail to hold someone to account for their actual record, which in Obama’s case includes a zeal for popular repression that cannot be blamed on external pressures.  In this instance at least, we cannot choose a less powerful opponent, because they are empowered by the choosing itself.

Whether you believe that meaningful social or political change can come from the Democrats, from an Independent of some stripe, or from the State not at all: why would any politician do right if they don’t believe they have anything to lose?  Right now the Democratic Party is like the smug merchant whose price is firm because nobody is walking away.

The most compelling argument I’ve heard to continue to support Obama in spite of his transgressions has come from friends who have experienced some direct personal benefit as a result of his policies.  Namely, I know a number of folks whose own or loved one’s medical care has been provided or preserved by some aspect of the Affordable Care Act.  These cases are not insignificant, and I’m not indifferent to them.  Whether right or wrong, I feel somewhat bound by decency not to challenge too forcefully these folks’ decision to support Obama.

But I also won’t be bullied into allowing their experience to trump any other consideration or misgiving.  As one such person wrote on Facebook:   “[If] you plan to vote for anyone other than the incumbent presidential candidate in November, you are pissing me right the fuck off, and here’s why. If your fuckery gets the Republican candidate elected in November, this is what it will cost me, personally.”  Here’s the problem with that.  Your life may have been positively affected by this administration, but there are also other folks whose lives have been ruined by it.  Would you make the same zealous demand of someone whose spouse or parent had been deported?  In fact, why limit it to people residing in the United States: why should I value your prosperity or suffering more than the thousands of Afghans, Pakistanis and other peoples who are terrorized and murdered by U.S. drones every day?  And if I’m responsible for your and your family’s hardship if Obama loses, how are you not responsible for all of their woe if he wins?  I’m sorry, but you don’t get to shame me about the blood that will be on my hands if Romney is elected, then shrug off your complicity in Obama’s warmongering as tragic but unavoidable.

Then there’s the argument from urgency: that the stakes are too high in this election to embark on a long-term project of changing the political playing field.  That this claim has been made in every presidential election I’ve participated in (and for a long time before then) is telling, but I was still given pause to consider it anew in light of the threat of global ecological catastrophe.  Still, it only takes Googling the words “Keystone XL” to disabuse yourself of any notion that voting for Obama is any sort of serious approach to averting that disaster.

Ultimately, I’ll concede that Obama and other Democrats are, on a number of issues, slightly less evil than Republicans.  But just because they aren’t exactly the same doesn’t mean they’re not a part of the same rotten system.  If the Dems weren’t noticeably more palatable to certain conscientious voters, they wouldn’t be an effective pressure release valve for public outrage.  At my previous tutoring job (and, I’m sure, at virtually all jobs working with children), we had a trick-bag of “behavior modifications” to keep the student engaged in the task.  One of the simplest and most effective of these was to give them a “forced choice”, where either option was suitable to me.  “Would you rather spell five words, or ten?”  Either way, I achieved my goal.  In fact, sometimes five words was all I wanted them to do anyway.  So when the same person as above angrily charged that I was “playing right into the GOP electoral strategy”, I have to counter that they might be playing into the ruling class’ governance strategy.

It’s often claimed that voting Independent, or refusing to vote for any of the candidates in the field, is a purely symbolic act.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If we have any ability to influence our elected officials (a premise well worth debating, but most defenses of Obama presume this as well), that power must stem from a credible threat of withholding material support.  And so I must be honest with you and say that even if I lived in swing state, I would not vote for Obama: not just in spite of the fact that it could hurt his reelection chances, but because of it.  The better to transmit my message: I’m not fucking around.

Being as I am still relatively new to radical left politics, I’ll decline to opine at this time what role electoral politics should play in the struggle for justice and liberation, if any.  I don’t expect that everyone will reach the same ideological conclusions I have, but I do have hope that we can see this rigged game for what it is.  As long as we continue to support agents of this system who perpetrate the very oppression we struggle against, we’ll keep playing ourselves.

Because when it comes to who we pull the lever for, it doesn’t matter what’s in our hearts, any more than it matters whether Obama really wants deep down when he bargains with Social Security or authorizes a drone strike.  As with him, so with us: there is only the deed.

Atheist Activism and the Broader Fight for Global Social Justice

I have identified as an atheist from a young age, and have written about it a little on this blog.   My early adoption of godlessness was richly informed by the Christian zealotry that I encountered and was alienated by growing up in St. Louis.  Five years ago or so, when I first became aware of a nascent ‘atheist movement’, I felt powerfully affirmed.  Here was a social alliance not only to challenge the most visible harms done in the name of religion, but to break the hegemony of religious ideas that makes atheists and atheism invisible.   As I saw it then, the presumption of religion’s universal acceptance not only marginalized atheist persons, but also allowed religious ideas to stand unchallenged, ideas which in my view would lead people to making bad decisions.

In case it’s not yet clear: while I hold that atheism as a belief is a correct conclusion to draw about the universe, atheism as a social cause matters to me primarily in the context of a struggle for justice.  Even in 2007 when my political ideas were still relatively undeveloped, I was a sworn opponent of racism, sexism and all systemic oppression.  I also knew that these systems don’t exist in isolation, but intersect and uphold each other in complex ways.  Therefore, one couldn’t fight one form of oppression in isolation; there had to be a more holistic view for eradicating white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism together.  (I didn’t yet have the clear-headed critique of capitalism that I do now.)

It won’t surprise anyone, then, that I had serious misgivings about the politics of many of the New Atheists.  My main text of reference for this piece will be Sam Harris’ deeply Islamophobic “The End Of Faith” and a number of blog posts by Greta Christina, but my objections contend with the ideas of every modern atheist writer I’ve read.  My goal here is not to mount a definitive anti-racist or anti-imperialist critique of the atheist movement, but to ask the question: do the movement’s goals have any place in a comprehensive vision of global struggle against capital and white supremacy, patriarchy and empire?

The Fallacy of Idealism

Nearly all modern atheist writing and thought, in criticizing the actions of religious people, fails to address adequately that paramount philosophical question of materialism versus idealism.  They presuppose that the ideas people hold and espouse, and not their material conditions, are the principle forces driving both an individual’s actions and greater shifts at all scales of society.  Consider this premise from just the second page of Harris’ book: “A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life…your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings…[they] become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior.”  It is ironic that Harris and many other atheist thinkers presume so readily the supremacy of idealism, which has its basis in religious thought.  In ancient philosophy, the ideal forms from which material reality was derived were often believed to have a divine origin, and priests were the earliest ‘mental laborers’ who advocated an idealistic view of the world.

In reality, people hold a wide variety of beliefs, frequently dissonant with one another, seldom all in play at once.  These contradictions are confronted often not through the mechanisms of reason, but through messy unconscious action.  A person victimized by domestic abuse may believe their partner loves them, but also know that violence and love are irreconcilable.  A downtrodden worker may at once want to please their boss, and also desire to defy them.  A conscientious citizen may express genuine horror at war crimes, yet also support a politician who advances such policies.  Sometimes the contradiction can survive years, lifetimes.  Even if the dissonance is finally resolved, the shift often occurs materially before it happens mentally.

Harris’ book is riddled with idealistic fallacies about the motives and behavior of religious people:

  • “Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness…he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray”.
  • “The only future devout Muslims can envisage…is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.”
  • “If you believe anything like what the Koran says you must believe…you will…be sympathetic with the actions of Osama bin Laden.”
  • Rebutting an author suggesting other geopolitical explanations for suicidal violence in the Middle East besides Islamic faith: “[He] seems unable to place himself in the position of one who actually believes the propositions set for the in the Koran”.

All the italics are in the original, but all the emphasis in the world won’t change the facts that 1) the literal precepts of a religious text do not automatically become the actual beliefs of a nominal adherent to that faith, and 2) an individual’s professed beliefs do not automatically dictate their behavior.

These logical gaps are easily observed later in the same chapter, in which Harris purports to demonstrate Islam’s inexorable barbarism.  He reports statistics of a 2002 Pew poll of Muslim populations in various countries, gauging levels of sympathy to suicide bombings perpetrated “to defend Islam”.  In the most apparently egregious case, 73% of Lebanese Muslims polled responded that suicide bombings are ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified, while only 21% thought they were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ justified.  All that has been conclusively revealed here is the gulf between stated belief and action: if every one of the Muslim men and women polled really believed in the literal truth of the Koran—and if, as Harris asserts, “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran”—why wouldn’t the level of sympathy be one hundred percent?  Why was each of the respondents not a suicide bomber themselves?

Again, my point here is not to comprehensively expose Harris’ Islamophobia, but to highlight the mistaken assumption that ideas dictate action.  Quite often, they don’t.  Sam Harris is the most guilty of this, when he wholly discounts any other political or material motive behind an act of terror, but I haven’t read any atheist author who isn’t mute on the issue.  Simply noting that sometimes people do terrible (or wonderful) things in the name of their faith, and sometimes they don’t, doesn’t have any explanatory power.  Besides failing to meet a standard of empiricism for atheism’s own arguments, this mistake has grave consequences when attempting to place the movement within a larger fight for justice.  If atheists cannot recognize and account for the material forces at play with religion, how can they hope to comprehend historical forces and strategies for resistance?

The Value of Liberal Anti-Racism (and the Inadequacy of It)

It’s worth noting that religious texts say some crazy, intolerant, internally inconsistent and generally bizarre shit.  But it’s also worth getting over.  Because religion isn’t the text it’s based on, but an actual living practice.  Most of all, religion is a set of social relations.  Religious people will describe their private personal practice of faith (another subject worthy of scrutiny, in another post) but the principal religious expression I’m interested in criticizing is the one which produces power imbalance and domination within families, communities, and society at large.

Of all the atheist authors I’ve encountered, Greta Christina is the only one who at least attempts to reconcile this dissonance.  She describes why the predominant whiteness and maleness of the New Atheism is an urgent issue to be addressed before it bites the movement in the ass, and has been an advocate for a new online forum and ‘wing’ of the movement, Atheism Plus, that emphasizes social justice.  However, I find Christina’s main prescription of an Anti-Oppression 101 program—consisting mostly of items that essentially amount to ‘acknowledging that racism and sexism exist’ and ‘not immediately silencing or marginalizing any Other that enters this predominantly white/male space’—to be direly Necessary, but far from Sufficient.  It isn’t nearly enough to recruit POC to the atheist movement; the movement must develop cogent theory that can harmonize with struggles against global white supremacy and imperialism, or doom itself to being a transient white bourgeois philosophical fad.  To paraphrase Flavia Dzodan: our atheism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

Case in point: a few years back, Christina participated in Draw Mohammad Day, in which atheists all over drew the Prophet to challenge Islamist intimidation and violence towards their critics.  Anticipating my objection, she writes:

Perhaps you think that secular groups and others organizing “Draw Mohammad” protests are engaging in anti-Muslim or anti-Arab marginalization. Perhaps you think that deliberately breaking another religion’s sacred rule, with the sole and stated purpose of breaking that rule, is a form of religious bigotry. Or even just childish jerkitude.

She goes on to quote a commenter from another atheist blog:

The day drawing a bloody stick figure isn’t something you have to do while looking over your shoulder. The day cartoonists don’t have to build panic rooms in their homes (!!) for a rough picture of a dog with a mans head. The day dozens of people don’t die (again !!) because of some cartoons. On that day, I will agree that the secular group is just being immature and hurtful.

She concludes her defense thusly:

Is it hurtful to deliberately poke people’s sore spots with a stick, just for the sake of doing it? Yes. I don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do, and I don’t generally do it.  But is it far, far more hurtful — not only to certain individuals, but to every individual in the world, and to society as a whole — to use violence and death threats to frighten people away from criticizing your religion, and to force obedience to your religious views on the entire human race?  By a thousand orders of magnitude, yes.

This is a sublimely white-privileged perspective.  From Christina’s framing, you might never guess that this past August alone, over half a dozen mosques in the U.S. were vandalized or terrorized with lethal force, and one burned to the ground (on the second attempt).  One might be led to believe that it was atheists, not Muslims, who suffered a dramatic spike in hate crimes, harassment and employment discrimination after 9/11.  This is to say nothing of Islamophobia’s role in dehumanizing and invisiblizing Muslim and Arab lives being destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries ravaged by imperialist warfare.

Yes, it is wrong that Theo Van Gogh was murdered, that news outlets and satirists are cowed by violent intimidation, and it ought to be criticized.  But Draw Mohammad Day does not, as Christina and Ayaan Hirsi Ali argue, “spread the risk…confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with”, as most of the sharing of the drawings happens only within peer circles.  The only time I’ve ever seen such drawings are on Facebook, and the blog everyonedrawmohammed.blogspot.com is viewable by invitation only.  What Draw Mohammad Day does do is give a bunch of white people an excuse to ridicule smugly a group which endures far more serious threats of violence and terror than most of them ever will.

Christina acknowledges that this tactic causes harm, but reduces it to hurt feelings, thereby erasing the real material danger Islamophobia poses to Muslims in the U.S. and abroad.  But her utilitarian calculus is even further skewed by her failure to account for how severely a mass action like Draw Mohammad Day alienates Muslims and Muslim groups who might have been collaborators on social justice projects.  Hell, it alienates me—as a person of Arab descent, as a person with Muslim friends and family, and as an anti-racist—and I actually identify with the atheist movement!

The Place of Atheist Activism

So, back to my original question: does the atheist movement have a part to play in a global struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression?

A friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook: “The problems associated with religion are found outside of religion and it has more to do with gendered, classed, and racialized power than it has to do with the structures that give form to power.”   Before being presented with this framework, I had observed that religious oppression often appeared to collude with other systems of domination: husbands attempting to control their wives’ bodies, LGBTQ folks being ostracized and targeted in the name of religion.  But what if religion were not the source of the oppression in itself, but simply the vehicle through which another form of oppression were being expressed?

I’m intrigued by this concept, but not entirely convinced.  As Greta Christina has documented pretty extensively (but not exhaustively), there have been myriad cases across the country where atheist persons have been publicly humiliated and threatened, barred from political participation and representation, shunned and cut off by their family and community, and, most horrifyingly, denied custody of their children.

I’m not claiming that atheists are the only people affected by religious oppression, but the instances of victimization and marginalization at the hands of religion where race, gender, or some other social stratification wasn’t a decisive factor are too numerous to be discounted.  I contend that there are many spaces within this country where religious ideas, and religious people as a class (namely Christians), are hegemonic.  Here is a struggle that the atheist movement can and should lead in defense of its own—including atheists who are still ‘in the closet’.  And there are clearly many other good fights—against sexism, against homophobia, against subjugation of young people—where the atheist movement can play a valuable supporting role while also making their case.

But please understand, fellow atheists: this struggle is just one among many being fought every day, some of which are very much matters of life-and-death for the people involved.  If atheists are going to be on the right side of the fight, we are going to have to contend with the questions of white supremacy and empire.  We are going to have to ask, do we want to build a movement that forms alliances with other seekers of justice?  Or do we just want to win a philosophical argument against people whose homes and lives are being burned to the ground?  That hardly sounds like a fair fight.

Snapshots from Sunday

This isn’t and couldn’t possibly be the definitive account of mine and Claire’s commitment celebration two days ago; it’s just a scribbling of some moments and thoughts that I don’t want to slip away.

I had been feeling super no-big-deal about the celebration for many months leading up to it, up until maybe a month ago, when all my family and a bunch of other friends started buying plane tickets.  That’s when I started to realize that this event–and this relationship–were bigger than us.  We had been a presence in people’s lives for the past ten years, and they in ours.  It started to become clear that this was actually a really big deal, a remember-for-the-rest-of-your-life, over 100 likes on Facebook kind of deal.  It didn’t belong just to us, but to a whole family and community of friends, lovers and kin.  It’s not often that one is fortunate enough to have so much advance notice for such a moment.  Here’s an incomplete list of some things I’ll never forget.

*   *   *

Claire and I had to come out as polyamorous to my mom’s extended family just four days before the ceremony, since my mom, for all her bravery in other respects, had avoided telling them for fear of their reaction.  Despite the discomfort, they were all very sweet and supportive.  My mother was later to redeem herself.

On Friday, my brother and his girlfriend Mallory hosted a roast of me and Claire.  It was my idea, and I have to congratulate myself.  I feel like the first person to think to combine sea salt and caramel: so simple and obvious in retrospect!  At the end of the night, despite my flushed cheeks, I knew that these were the people who really knew me.

*   *   *

On Sunday, we kept the program fairly short and sweet, but here’s what me and Claire had to say for ourselves:

Thank you all for being here with us today. As most of you know, we got together in our first year of college, and finally made the decision to get engaged on our ten-year anniversary last November. It took us longer than a lot of other couples to decide that having this commitment celebration was right for our relationship. We wanted to share a few thoughts about what this occasion means to us.

There are lots of reasons to be critical of marriage, from its patriarchal legacy to its current exclusion of many LGBT and queer folks. We are thankful to be a part of a radical community that looks closely at traditions which may have oppressive roots. We are also grateful that this same community has a proud history of reclaiming such labels, spaces and institutions, and transforming them into tools for liberation.

We recognize that we are specially privileged to be able to have a legally and socially recognized union. We are conscious of the injustice that many rights and privileges that often come with marriage are withheld from LBGTQ folks in most places, and indeed from many more people whose relationships and families deviate from a strict heteronormative patriarchal model. We would like to acknowledge that we are fortunate and reaffirm our commitment to fighting for these rights for everyone regardless of whom they love or what their families look like.

Traditional wedding vows often declare two peoples’ intent to commit to and cherish one another through good times and bad. Over the past decade we have weathered moving across the country, toiling long hours at rewarding but low-paying jobs, trips to the emergency room, and other trials that life has offered up. We have also shared the joys of making a home with one’s best friend; pursuing our dreams and aspirations together, Claire as an educator and Shareef as an artist; and standing side-by-side in the fight for social justice. No one who has known us over the past ten years needs proof of our commitment to each other. Today is as much a celebration of what we have already built as it is one of what we are going to build.

While we depend on each other for many things—help with chores, support and comfort with life’s daily stresses and long-term goals—we are ultimately individuals, each with our own distinct desires, ambitions, and personal journeys. Our ability to maintain and respect each other’s independence and individuality is one of the successes of our relationship. At the same time, it’s amazing to look at the people that we are today and know how much we each have been shaped by the other’s presence in our life over the past decade.

This is a chance for us to bring together the people who have been important in our lives and express our love and gratitude toward you, because just as we have shaped each other over the past ten years, so you have shaped us and our relationship.

To our families: You gave us loving homes that inspire us to make our own. You have supported us in pursuing our education and our dreams. You raised us to be honest, kind, curious, and unafraid to be ourselves and choose our own paths in life.

To our friends and lovers: You have enriched our lives beyond measure and the bounds of imagination. You tell us hard truths when we need to hear them. You celebrate our successes. You accept us as the imperfect human beings we are and give comfort and reassurance as we navigate our path. You have expanded our definitions of love, companionship, and family.

We wish to remember and hold in our hearts people whom we wish were with us today: Beatrice Levine, Julius Glaser, Taimoor Ali Elfiki.

*   *   *

We had family and friends read a few poems we selected, including these oldies-but-goodies by e.e. cummings (which was beautifully read by my dearest friend Lisa):

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

i fear no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

And Hafiz:

Even after all this time,
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.

*   *   *

And then we exchanged vows.

Image

I pledge to always accompany you down your path of becoming and evolving, while at the same time accepting and cherishing who you are at the present moment.

I pledge to support you as much as I am able in your other loving relationships, celebrating the joyful moments and offering comfort and guidance in tough times.

I pledge to be your partner and comrade in this lifelong struggle against injustice and oppression.

I pledge to build a home with you, a warm, safe space for rest, nurturing creativity and inspiration, gathering our community, and creating a family.

I pledge to continue growing into the most excellent, ethical, valuable person I can be, for you and for the world.

*   *   *

Then there was music.  Everyone who played was fantastic–I picked them myself–but I think the moment that I’ll live again over and over was Erma singing “Unchained Melody” with Erika and Maia backing her up. Faces young and old lit up as they recognized the tune, and the floor slowly filled with dancing pairs, including Claire’s parents, who were married for some twenty years–but have been divorced for as many.

But as much as we contrived to create a magical, memorable day, the best moments were the ones we couldn’t plan, but only set the conditions for.  That is, the toasts, each more beautiful and humbling than the last.  My biggest regret is that none of these kind words were recorded, and already so many of the words can’t be recalled, only the feelings they drew out of me.

A few I do remember, though.  My brother telling an unflattering childhood story, then following it with, “I don’t know when it changed that I started looking up to my younger brother.  But it has.”

And my mother, with the sucker-punch tearjerker of the evening, reading this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

*   *   *

Today I napped for four-and-a-half hours, and sleep is calling me again.  There is no way I could thank everyone by name, but I love you.  And I can’t wait to become the person that I promised to Claire, and to you, that I would be.

I almost got myself fired today.

So I’m pretty sure I came within an inch of losing my job today.  For being an atheist while on the clock.

For my day job, I work at a private educational company (they’re terrible), and sometimes I administer evaluative tests to potential students.  A few weeks ago, I was testing a boy about nine years old.  Between tests, I make small talk.  I can’t remember the lead-up to this, but at some point this kid made the comment, “Well, my mom says this world is ending and the next one is coming.”

It’s my firm belief that one of the major ways that religious hegemony is enforced is by silent consent to worldview expressions like these, despite the fact that they are not uncontroversial viewpoints in the slightest.  I feel one of the most imperative acts I can commit as an atheist is to speak out in situations like these, to not grant consent to the illusion of universal acceptance of religious ideology.  In my view, the fact that I was working with a young child only made my dissent more urgent, to challenge those notions before oppressive social expectations became established.  So I said, “That’s cool.  People think a lot of different things about the universe.  I’m an atheist myself, so I don’t believe in god.  But the great thing is that you get to decide what you believe.”

At the end of my shift today, I got sat down by my boss, who’d evidently been confronted by the kid’s parent.  As nicely as she could, my boss told me that what I’d said was “not appropriate” and could not happen again.  To which I replied, “I don’t want to lose my job, but I don’t think there was anything unethical about what I said, and it shouldn’t be controversial.”

My boss politely tried to find a common ground that wasn’t there, saying that she appreciated that I held ‘strong beliefs’ but that our (my) role was just to provide educational services and there was no reason to ‘go there’.  At this I had to wonder, what other kinds of crazy-town views would this company’s management abide for the sake of not offending a parent-customer?  I’ve set kids straight in the past when they’ve said homophobic remarks.  What if a parent got upset that I had done that?  Would my boss reprimand me, and then turn around and shake the hands of the many LGBT parents that bring their children to our learning center?  What if a child talked about how their parents said there was a race war coming?  Would I even be allowed to say, “You know, some people don’t think there’s an imminent race war.  You can make up your own mind about it”, or would I have to zip it?

The conversation ended with her restating that it couldn’t happen again, and with me smiling wryly, unwilling to give any guarantee that I wouldn’t do the same in the future. I have no idea whether I have any legal rights or protections here (I’m not hopeful), but I stand by my conviction that what I said–that different views exist, that I held one of them, and that he the student was free to decide–should not have been controversial in the slightest.  Diverse belief systems and religious freedom are all natural facts of the pluralistic society that we live in, and the seeming attempt by the parent at denying their existence is possibly even more troubling and dangerous than the crazy story about the next world after this one.

“Stone’s Throw (#J28)”

On Thursday I debuted a brand new song (my first of the year) at an Occupy 4 Prisoners screening of the new documentary Broken On All Sides (very good) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.  The song is called “Stone’s Throw (#J28)” and obviously is inspired by my own experiences that day.  My performance is right at the beginning of this clip:


I also highly recommend watching Elaine Brown’s portion, starting at 22:44.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

“The fight is dead,” the riot cop said as he sat me on the curb
with my cramping wrists, piss and apple cider vinegar.
Though I’m trembling still, from nerves and chill, I will have to call your bluff
if you think you can stop this struggle with a pair of ziptie cuffs.
 
A clear sky storm of flash-bangs, beanbags, hazy and surreal;
a scarlet letter spray-painted on a makeshift trashcan shield.
But they tossed our stuff before they loaded us on a stolen public bus:
goggles and a spray bottle, the only LAW I trust.
 
They held us twenty to a tank of cold concrete and steel,
where you’ll lose your mind trying to keep time by counting orange peels.
I don’t know which is worse, missing the warm bath of daylight,
or waking every hour to the same fluorescent night.
 
I got released to a fast food feast on the front steps of the jail,
but we know our work ain’t finished until we empty every cell.
So you can ban us from the Plaza, stay away from City Hall,
but sure as we burned that flag, that edifice is gonna fall!
 
So we rage on like a Greece fire, I heard they torched a bank today.
And we raise a fist to Cairo, we’re just a stone’s throw away.
If you’ve got a pot to piss in, don’t be afraid to call it black,
or you’ll never break the kettle and take your city back.