Thursday, 30 August 2012

Update on songs for Atheism

Following my post last night in which I asked for songs and music people felt appropriate to the atheist/secular movement, I've had some great feedback and suggestions.  I was going to just post these under my original entry with my suggestions,  but there's too many so I'll put them in a new thread.

First, though, I'm going to be shamelessy self-indulgent (hey, it's my blog) and post just two more of my own.  The first one is Nina Simone's "Feeling Good", which I think is pretty self-explanatory:

This second - not to lower the mood - I want played at my funeral. Reflective, simple and beautiful.  I could listen to Tom Waits all day (and frequently do) but "Take It With Me" is one of my favourites:
In the comments section here, I had the following suggestions: From Xu Wang, "Saved" by Shelley Segal:
From WelshKris87, Bryan Steeksma's "Listen To Reason":
From Phil Meyers, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds' "If I Had A Gun":
Heretic With A Heart suggested Gogol Bordello's "Supertheory of Supereverything":
Michael5MacKay offered  XTC's "Dear God" (by the way, someone needs to tell me what other song that guitar riff appears in because it's putting my swede through. I'm feeling it's vaguely 70s-ish but can't pin it down) and "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead":
Jon suggested Doris Day's Que Sera, Sera:
Altair suggested this piece from the Cosmos series (for me, definitely a lie on the grass, stare at the stars get miles away one, thanks Altair!):
Smegger68 recommends "Faithless" and "Freewill", both by Rush:
And Phil Walder suggests "Everybody Hurts" by REM - a worthy acknowledgment, I think, that all of us, atheist and theist alike, are human and have the same feelings. (Well. Maybe not Republicans.):
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Adam Bennett suggests "The Dream" by Greydon Square:
... and only1united suggested the theme tune to Ghostbusters, which made me laugh:

Anyone want to suggest any more? Keep 'em coming!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Could there be an anthem for atheism?

Occasionally I hear a piece of music that I think would be a good theme tune for the atheist movement, or for aspects of it; if atheism needed one and if I thought for a moment that atheists would ever reach a consensus on such a notion, that is.

So in a totally lighthearted and probably quite tongue-in-cheek way, I'd like to submit a few suggestions and ask anyone who reads this for their suggestions. If nothing else, I'll probably hear some new music I didn't know about. Rather embarrassingly, I can't work out whether you'll be able to post functional links in the comments, but if it turns out you can't I'll repost them as amendments to this post.

My submissions:

For when we're feeling rebellious, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing In The Name" (especially the section from about 4:15 on - I couldn't make it to the One Law For All rally for Free Expression in February this year - when that whole mess with the Jesus and Mo cartoons was at its peak - but if I had I'd've wanted to play this REALLY loudly!):

For when we're getting our geek on, Monty Python's "Universe Song":
For our hippie moments, John Lennon's "Imagine":
For when we want to be REEEAALLY snarky at christians, Guns n Roses' "Sympathy for the Devil" (and anyone who tries to tell me the Rolling Stones' version was better will be shot):
For when we're happy and careless (and because I do love Eric Idle), Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life":
And to illustrate JUST how far things can be open to interpretation, and because I think it's one of the most beautiful (and, now I know more about it, most bittersweet) songs ever recorded, "None of Us are Free" by Solomon Burke. I honestly thought could have been about the atheist movement the first time I heard it:
And for when we just want to lie on the grass at night, stare at the stars and feel our spines tingle at how truly awesome the universe is, "Conquest of Paradise" by Vangelis (apologies for the tacky video on this one; just ignore it, look at the stars and space out with me!):

So those are mine - a few of them, anyway.  Anyone have any others they want to share?  Please let me know!

Luce. xx

Monday, 27 August 2012

One more post about Atheism Plus, then I'm going to try to leave it alone.

Hello again everyone.

If you've followed me here from Twitter, you probably know that I've been coming down pretty hard against Atheism Plus - in fact, the more I learn about it and the more I talk with its proponents, the more against it I become. Yes, I am deeply ornery and prone to fighting against things that demand my complicity just on principle. Ask my boss. It's more than likely that's part of my problem with the whole idea, I won't deny that - but that in itself is kind of the final point I want to make.

(Just a note before I continue, to clear up something I've been hearing a lot from people who don't like my anti-A+ stance. Do I think there is a problem with sexism (and racism and homophobia and transphobia, although sexism has been mentioned far more) within the atheist community? Absolutely; if it's happening at all - and it is - it's a problem. But in case you hadn't noticed, it's a problem fucking everywhere, among all communities. People are still being killed for being the "wrong" of the wrong race, gender or sexuality. This - rather obviously - is not OK. When I object to A+, I object to their methods, not the the ideology behind them.)

My partner has a career that has made him supremely talented at managing people (or has just revealed the talent. Either way.). Dwight Eisenhower described good leadership as "[t]he art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it". That's my partner; he's a genius in the specialised field of making people feel invested in what HE wants them to do, and therefore inclined to make a greater effort.

When I've asked him how he does it (there are occasions when I think it would be a useful skill, such as when I'm talking my way out of getting sacked for being an unmanageable bastard), I've got the impression most of it is just instinctive and probably related to being one of those special people who just like other people. One thing about it that he has been able to distill and articulate for me, though, is that people respond best when they're made to feel good about themselves.

This, in a nutshell, is why Atheism Plus is getting shot to shit on Twitter and elsewhere.  The fact is that you cannot label your group new and improved without by extension labeling everyone else old and inferior. You cannot call yourself morally superior without telling everyone else they're morally inferior. You can't pronounce yourself moral arbiter without telling everyone else their opinion matters less than your own (or not at all, if you're Richard Carrier). Thus - INSTANTLY - Atheism Plus has made everyone who wasn't involved from the very beginning feel misjudged, wronged and vilified. At this point, it barely matters what your intentions were (although I'm astonished that no one behind this little clique realised just how insulting is was to every other non-believer, secularist and humanist in the world); you're asking people to join a movement whose opening gambit is to tell them they're not good enough. Very few people are going to respond favourably to that.

There's one other problem with assuming someone is a tosser until they prove themselves otherwise (and it's multiplied when the only criteria you'll accept is to be exactly the same as you and willing to submit to your definition of a decent person).  You are making an unfavourable assumption about another person based on no information. If you are right, you are as unfair and prejudiced as they are. If you are wrong, you are worse than they are. There is no way in which this can be said NOT to make you unjustifiably judgmental and prejudiced.

So that's my piece. I've been tweeting vociferously about this over the last week or so, and long since reached the stage where I physically cannot respond to every question and shriek of indignation I receive.  Apologies to anyone who's tweeted a question and not received a reply (if you've tweeted to call me a bigot for refusing to presumptively label other people bigots - well, up yours, quite frankly. Are you seeing how this works yet? Note though; I WILL NOT block someone for giving me stick, disagreeing with me or calling me names.  That's both cowardly and unbearably self-important coming from an internet nobody with a blog. I don't have any sort of right not to hear opinions I don't like.).

If you like this post or any other I've written about Atheism Plus, please feel free to refer people to it; however, I'm going to take on my own combative (read argumentative tosspot) nature and try very hard not to get involved any further in this particular argument - I will still be blogging and tweeting about other stuff, though.  It's just that I kind of need to eat, sleep and earn money occasionally!

Peace, yawl. Chill your beans.

Follow up to the Pakistan "blasphemy" case.

Last week I wrote a post about the brutal injustice suffered by a child in Pakistan, who had been arrested on charges of "blasphemy" after being accused of burning pages from the Qur'an.  My thoughts at the time can be seen here. Although the story was everywhere for a few days - with the USA, laudably, officially registering their "concern" about the case - little has been heard since the child's arrest so I thought I should do some digging.

I'm pleased to report that - possibly due to the outrage expressed by multiple media outlets as well as pressure from other nations - the news is better than I was tempted to expect.

It is now being reported by outlets in India and in Pakistan itself that there is no hard evidence that the burned material found in the child's possession included any part of the Qur'an.  Let me make something clear; this is not me validating, conceding or in any way assenting to the view that THIS is what makes burning a book OK - I'm just passing on what I've learned. Reading between the lines from previous information and another couple of interesting "clarifications", part of me thinks there may well have been Qur'anic material, but that pressure has persuaded the Pakistan authorities to deny this.

In a related clarification, police official Zabi Ullah now states that girl can be held for only fourteen days while the matter is investigated. Another police official who did not wish to be named stated that the evidence against the child is such as to mean there is "nothing much to the case", and that he expected her to be released at the end of the holding period once anger in the region has dissipated. That, of course, is a matter of huge concern; a community of several hundred people has been driven from its homes by a mere accusation; in such an atmosphere, it is not unreasonable to fear that the child and others of her community may remain at risk when she is released.

There is still much confusion on the case; the age of the child has been variously given as eleven and sixteen. There are still reports that she may be mentally disabled. The Times of India quotes a Vatican representative who states she is entirely illiterate. None of that affects or ameliorates the horror of arresting a child, of course - or the insanity of arresting anyone for something so banal as burning a book.

Sadly - and perhaps tellingly - the Pakistan Ministry of Human Rights is offering no comment or press release material specific to this matter that I was able to find.

It may well be that this matter will resolve itself more justly than we might have expected, although of course it's disgraceful that it ever happened in the first place. However, this is by no means certain and if the clarifications given are more a concession to pressure than an elucidation of existing facts (and I by no means state that as a fact), that tells us that pressure may still be necessary. If, like me, you are concerned about what will happen to this girl and to her family, I encourage you to visit this page and send emails to the people who may be able to influence the outcome.  The content is up to you, of course, but I recommend registering your opinion on "blasphemy" laws and seeking reassurance that the child will be released once it is safe (preferably with mechanisms in place to assure that latter point) for her to return to her community.

A surreal but wonderful way to spend a weekend

Hi everyone,

As some of my twitter friends know, I've been whinging about being exhausted, bruised and blistered. While I can't boast an experience of quiiite the level of enjoyment the above apparently suggests to certain people who shall remain nameless (and whose idea of good sex I find slightly unnerving), I'm happy to report I've had a weekend very nearly that fun.

This weekend there's an event called the Ancestor's Trail that takes place in the Quantock Hills in Somerset.  It's based on the The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins, and as he commented himself; many writers have had their works turned into films, but how many can boast that they've been turned into a walk? The whole thing's actually carrying on this morning (it's a bank holiday in the UK), but sadly I couldn't make the entire weekend and came home last night.

The Saturday night in particular turned into one of the most bizarre but enjoyable evenings in my experience.  I went to the event not really knowing what I expected, but dancing to Russian folk music with Richard Dawkins definitely wasn't high on the list of possibilities I'd considered.  I wasn't able to get any photos, but if anyone who was there reads this and has any they'd be willing to share with me please let me know!

On Saturday evening, we were treated to a series of talks by a disparate but consistently charismatic group of speakers.  This started with Peter Exley of the RSPB, who delivered a talk on the conservationist work of his organisation in general (hint; despite what you might think, it's NOT just about birds!) and with reference to the Albatross in particular.  The link from Coleridge's walk in the Quantocks to his eerie and haunting work The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was irresistible and an excellent tool because it gave each of us, I believe, a sense of depth and an investment in the magnificent bird that we might not otherwise have felt.  The RSPB's campaign to save the albatross can be found here if anyone would like to make a donation:

Kevin Cox from the World Land Trust was next, and I have to say that some of the figures he delivered were utterly terrifying.  The WLT operates by buying up chunks of land in regions where it's in danger of being destroyed by logging or agriculture; in doing so, of course, they save literally thousands of species whose habitat would otherwise have disappeared altogether.  They're a small organisation and when one considers what they're up against it might be possible to conclude that they're fighting a losing battle. Cox's passion for his cause, though, was obvious and contagious, and the very smallness of the WLT when contrasted against what they've managed to achieve is a testament to what can be done by a small group of people with enough determination; their donations page can be found here: David Attenborough is a patron of the charity - he would approve!

The next speaker was Dr. Alex Taylor from the MRC lab in Cambridge.  Here we made the switch from conservation to "harder" science; his talk about XNA (synthetic and modified DNA/RNA) was meaty and fascinating. I wouldn't be confident enough in my own understanding to try and replicate (ha!) what was said in any detail, but Dr. Taylor's blog can be found here and I promise it'll blow your mind:

We had a talk then from Alom Shaha, the author of The Young Atheist's Handbook. For me, speaking honestly, this was the only sour note of the evening. Nobody reacts well to being told they're too stupid/ignorant to be science advocates, atheists - typically somewhat contrary by nature - least of all. Shaha made some very valid points about the comparative difficulty in "coming out" as an atheist from starting points in different cultural backgrounds - which results in the admittedly rather homogenous white, middle-class nature of atheist and humanist groups - but again, the approach was such that my gut reaction was to think "I'm sorry, I'll work on being less middle-class, shall I?!". I should be honest and admit that I have not read Shaha's book.  Many people I spoke with at the event said they were very impressed by it, so it's entirely possible that Shaha comes across better in print than in person, or that I reacted badly to one thing he said and became hypercritical from then on.  If anyone reading this has read the book, do please let me know what you thought of it in the comments section below!

Then, of course, we had the keynote speech from Richard Dawkins. In writing that, I just caught myself about to call him "the global rock star of atheism", and stopped myself because - having talked with him briefly later in the evening - I understand that he thinks of himself far more as a scientist than as an atheist. A reasonable assertion, in fairness; having read most of Professor Dawkins' books, it does seem unfair on reflection that he's so widely known for a single unbelief among a near infinite number of unbeliefs.  Moving on from that, then, Professor Dawkins talked us through the principles of the journey laid out in The Ancestor's Tale, and from there went on to describe some of the ways to think about what would happen if we "replayed the tape" of evolution, and what we could expect by doing so. When I first read the book this concept, this thought experiment, was one of the most fascinating ideas for me. The notion that evolution can be in a sense predictive by looking at how many times certain developments have independently evolved is wonderful; no matter how many times I hear about the diving bell spider it seems too astonishing to be real. The Ancestor's Tale is probably my favourite of Professor Dawkins' books; I recommend it to everyone, and it can be found here:

After the talks, we had the rare and lovely opportunity to drink and chat with the speakers; I was able to ask a slightly moronic question about prion disease of Dr. Taylor (the reason it was moronic was that I hadn't accounted for the energy gradient, but he was very nice about it), and had a good natter with Andrew Copson, the unfailingly charming CEO of the BHA, too.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the gathering, I think, was that virtually everyone had come on their own.  This meant that there were few preexisting cliques, so by the end of my two days there I'd had entertaining, informative and often wickedly funny conversations with just about everybody there, and made many new friends. I've commented before that the sense of community and good will at humanist events is remarkable and wonderful; this was possibly the best example I've had yet of that feeling.  In fact, if I had to choose a way of making humanism more appealing to theists, then - contradictory as it sounds - I would encourage them to attend science-led humanist events so they can see we're NOT the joyless, humourless, rigidly empirical people we're often portrayed to be.

The big walk took place on the Sunday, and although my feet were ready to fall off by the end of the thirteen-mile human trail it was worth every step.  The countryside in the area is achingly beautiful, and the talks of the night before had been the perfect set-up because we all spent the entire hike distracted and entranced by every bird, butterfly and spider we saw. (I also got chased - honestly round in circles for a good five minutes - by an amorous bee to the raucous amusement of the c.120 people who'd just sat down facing in my direction to listen to a poem about the great extinctions, though that was only enjoyable in retrospect.)

Things I have learned this weekend:

If you need new inner soles for your walking boots, get them before the thirteen-mile hike. Ouch.

Scientists can be very nice even when you're asking really dumb questions. Just ask, they're not scary.

When people who live in the country tell you something's ten minutes' walk away, pack your camping gear.

Evolution is really, really cool (I knew that already, but we all need reminding at times).

Humanists and geeks are great fun.

Richard Dawkins can throw shapes with the best of them.

Coffee + alcohol + extreme tiredness can lead to the best of evenings.

Other geeks can recommend a near-endless list of fascinating reading material, and I don't know where to start!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Update on Atheism Plus - I think I've identified the problem

Since my last post, I've had conversations with Greta Christina, Jen McCreight and a couple of others on the subject of Atheism Plus.  These conversations took me through even-more-confused-about-it territory, but I think I've now grasped it enough to form my opinion on it.

There are two main problems with A+ as I see it; one I can overlook and one I can't.

The problem I can get over is an issue with communication.  Richard Carrier's representation of A+ - linked in my last post - does seem to be genuinely a misrepresentation of the movement. What started as a move to more actively exclude sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other nastinesses (which violates my value for free speech on the surface, but is necessary - as Greta points out - when the alternative is tacitly excluding the groups of people targeted by those nastinesses) seems to have been seized by Carrier as a pretext to exclude anyone he doesn't like. Worse, "people Carrier doesn't like" can apparently be defined as anyone not willing to gang up on and exclude non-A+ers even when they've done nothing objectionable.

It would be nice to see McCreight and others disavow Carrier's sentiments, because having seen the contrast between what he means by A+ and what everyone else seems to mean, they've got more reason to be furious with him than anyone else.  However, even if they won't do that it is possible that he could simply be left behind by a more reasonable A+ movement - if that happened, it would be possible to get on board with it even given its inauspicious beginning.

However, I said there was a problem I couldn't get around, and that hasn't been shifted.  After reading McCreight's clarification post (which can be found here: I tweeted her with what, to me, was the most important question: "Is it the label or the values that matter?"

The reply I received was "The values", which is in one way the better answer of the two options I offered. However, it did - finally! - help me to identify why I've been feeling so insulted by the whole A+ thing.

What it amounts to for me is this; I AM an A+, in values.  I AM opposed to sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all that stuff (in principle, at least; I don't claim to know everything, so I'm sure I fall short of perfection at times).

I resent the requirement that's been imposed on me by some random atheists on the internet to effectively adopt a label that - from my POV - says nothing more significant than "not a dick", which really shouldn't need saying.  I resent the idea that these principles that I consider merely part of being "not a dick" are something novel, noteworthy, deserving of everybody's attention.  I resent the implication that I needed some random atheist bloggers to teach me how to be "not a dick".  And most of all, I resent the way I'm being emotionally blackmailed with it; according to the proponents of Atheism Plus, I can either identify myself as something that ought to go without saying OR be assumed to be a dick.  What the A+ movement has given me is a choice between allying myself with them and crediting them with my being "not a dick", or losing the right to be assumed to be "not a dick", a right I had enjoyed for free until now.

Gee, thanks guys. I can see why THIS idea's been a big hit so far.

Time to weigh in on Atheism Plus

For a few days now I've been seeing comments about something called "Atheism Plus" or "A+" all over Twitter.  I didn't know what it was but I could see it was generating strong feeling, so I googled it earlier.  The first post I found on the subject was at Greta Christina's blog, which can be found here:

Now, I have to say that when I read this my initial reaction was to wonder what on earth the problem was; I've seen some people come down pretty hard against A+, but based on what I read here I couldn't see why.  Much as I admire thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and other names typically associated with "New Atheism", I've thought for a while now that it would be good to let people see that not all atheists are posh, uber-educated, straight white dudes aged forty to eighty - they're not actually all that representative.

Atheists and secularists, in my experience, do tend to be more progressive in terms of promoting social equality.  I'm sure there are exceptions, but I think as a rule we're pretty consistently ahead of the curve.  And I want to make this clear right now; I am totally, totally, in favour of improving the culture of atheism such that it is more welcoming, more supportive and more inclusive to everyone.  If we have been guilty of making people feel excluded, I consider that something that should be addressed.

But after reading Greta's comments, I read around a bit further and was increasingly horrified by what I found. Now, it's rare for me to disagree with Greta, and in fact I can't help thinking that maybe the A+ movement's spun out of control since she registered her approval of it, that maybe it started out far more sensibly. In fact, from looking at Jen McCreight's blog where the whole thing seems to have started, I think it probably WAS quite laudable at first:

But then the problems start to creep in. Notable among them is Richard Carrier's particularly charmless post which can be seen here:  You know you're on dodgy territory when the opening sentence reads "There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all."  It doesn't bode well, does it?  What that essentially amounts to is "I'm sick of hearing opposing opinions, it's time to brand dissenters subhuman, generate a bit of mob mentality and forcibly eject them from our movement".  With that kind of mentality, your reasons for trying to exclude the given group/s are all but irrelevant - you've become at least as scary as they are.  From that beginning, it's not a huge surprise to end with "I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less?  Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid."

In practical terms, what this seems to have led to is an assumption that only people willing to sign up to the A+ movement are in favour of social equality.  When I registered the irony of this - that based on my refusal to label myself according to other people's definition of an acceptable person, I am assumed to be a bigot - on Twitter, I was met with comments like this:

@Jitterysquirrel: "When you fight against social progress and equality, you are a bigot. When you shit on those who don't, you're an asshole too."

What?! I'm not fighting against social progress, that's just ridiculous! All I'm doing is arguing that A+ does not equal good person, and that good person does not equal A+.  I'm in favour of equality and progress as I hope other posts in this blog illustrate; I'm just not going to buy into the mentality that one must wordlessly submit to the A+ movement and promise never to disagree with any other member ever again in order to be a decent person. You know, because that's ridiculous.

I think the thing that bothers me most about the A+ movement, though, is how needlessly pessimistic - even plain cynical - it is.  When I meet a new person, be it online or IRL, I assume they're NOT a dick until they give me reason to think otherwise (and occasionally, they do, of course). I would like to have the same courtesy extended to me, that's all.  If I say something that betrays prejudice, bigotry or even just thoughtlessness, by all means call me on that because I don't want to be that kind of person - I want to know about my mistake and learn from it... but at least wait until I've actually cocked up before you start calling me an arsehole.

Atheism Plus is in many ways very deserving of praise. I am completely behind most of its values and aims. But by adopting the attitude of "if you're not with us, you're against us, against our values and therefore a bigot", they've shot themselves in the - well, not even in the foot. They've shot themselves in the head. I'm an A+ by everything except the label - but give me a ridiculously unnecessary (and hilariously melodramatic) ultimatum like that, and I'm out on principle.  If that kind of bullying mob mentality worked, I'd still be a christian.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Tony Nicklinson takes the control he was denied by a cruel and outdated legal system.

This morning, Right-to-Die campaigner Tony Nicklinson died less than a week after losing his challenge to the UK's existing law.  He sought to make sure that any doctor willing to assist him in ending his own life - an act he couldn't perform without assistance - would not face prosecution for murder for doing so.  His plea was denied on the grounds that the court was worried about setting a "dangerous precedent" for future cases.

Within hours of the verdict's being announced, Tony's wife Jane established a petition on; that can be found here:

Now here's something else that I almost didn't post; it felt almost indecent to watch this at the time the appeal was denied, and in a way it feels even more so now.  But this is a case that's all about people valuing legal familiarity and moral tradition over compassion; it's important that people know exactly how this decision affects real people.  This was the reaction of Tony and his wife when they heard the news (warning; I still can't watch this without being very upset. It is not pleasant viewing. But it's necessary.):

It is a mystery to me how anyone can watch this poor man's reaction to the outcome of his case and NOT feel utterly, utterly gutted for him.

This morning's news puts the above into a new light for me, too.  When I first watched this footage, I saw a man realising he now has no choice but to continue with a miserable, blighted existence, unable to escape from it without risking another person's freedom.  NOW when I watch it, I see a man realising that he has no resort but to commit slow, painful suicide by the only means at his disposal - by starving himself.

The Guardian and others report that Tony refused food after the verdict was delivered, and that as he weakened he succumbed to pneumonia, which finally killed him.

I am glad for Tony, happy for him that his misery is over.  I'm angry and sad that the end had to come about as it did.  Tony's decision to take his own life in the only way left to him is proof of the futility - leaving aside for a moment the cruelty and cowardice - in denying him his right to die. By handing down the verdict they did, all the court ensured was that Tony's death would not be painless and dignified but would be protracted, painful and miserable.  And although one feels desperately sorry for Tony, one can't help feeling almost worse for his family, who had to watch him suffer so terribly.

Follow up: While I've been writing this, I've been having a discussion on Twitter with some chaplain up North somewhere who (obviously) thinks the law's fine as it is.  It went on for a while and we reached a point where everyone in the world was allowed an opinion on a person's request to die (as long as they were against it, obviously) EXCEPT the person whose life was in question, but this tweet sums it up for me (spelling etc. corrected): "Desperately sad, but he effectively took his own life by refusing food and treatment. Law need not be changed, nor should it be."

There are people so ideologically opposed to compassionately ending suffering that they consider forcing someone to starve himself to death is better - and even then, it's a fair bet that even THAT's only because they can't stop it. I'll leave that one with you. I'm not sure what's going to happen to the petition now since it was specific to Tony, but if anyone knows of a more general one to change the law please tell me in the comments!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Conservatism, tradition, and ownership of the female body

As you probably know, US Congressman Todd Akin has invited a shitstorm this week with the following statement in the context of a debate about abortion:

"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

And in case you haven't already heard about this; yes, he really said that. So if you're one of the significant number of women who have been raped and WERE unfortunate enough to get pregnant as a result... well, you must have wanted it reeeally, mustn't you?  I mean really, really deep down. Or something.  'Cause there's got to be something called "illegitimate rape" if there's "legitimate rape", hasn't there? Maybe you were just unconscious. Or underage. Maybe you just didn't fight hard enough. Whatever the case, it must not really have been proper "rapey rape" if you got pregnant.

For the hard of thinking, yes the above is sarcastic.

But what about the context, while we're at it?  Does that matter? Well, yes, as it happens - though maybe not for the reasons you think.

Congressman Akin wants to block access to safe and legal abortion, even in cases where the woman seeking it has been raped.  He is under the impression that his own half-baked notions about the "sanctity" of a cluster of undifferentiated insensate cells takes precedent over our right to control our own bodies. Why? Because he says so, and because... well, you know. You're only a woman. It's not like you're a real person, or anything.

It's long been my opinion that we pro-choice people play right into the hands of the "pro-lifers" (who're rarely pro-life about anything other than foetuses, have you noticed? When was the last time you met an anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-healthcare, anti-hunting, fruitarian pro-lifer?) when we ask that tired old question "what if she's been raped?".


Well, it's related to my post from yesterday, in a sense - it's making an excuse that isn't necessary, it's tacitly assenting to the allegation that there's something about abortion that needs to be justified to other people.

If I get pregnant by ANY means, I am allowed as an adult and as my own person to decide what I want to do about that fact. It is no one's. Goddamn. Business. But mine. In fact, one might argue that my decision NOT to abort an unplanned pregnancy might require more justification, since that would affect other people than myself.

Pro-choice people are not "pro-abortion", whatever our opponents may say. None of us are going around telling people an abortion is a fun thing to do on a Saturday night, that they should invite some friends round, have a bottle of wine and make a night of it. We're not encouraging it, recommending it, we're not necessarily even saying we as individuals think abortion's ethically OK or that we'd do it ourselves; we're just saying that it's up to the individual to decide for herself. That's all.

So what's the opposing position to the pro-choice one? Well, let's face it - it's "anti-choice", isn't it? Let's be honest.

As I've already said, "pro-life" people are often - perhaps even usually - only pro-life when it comes to a foetus. Conservatives in the States are significantly "pro-life" and also significantly opposed to giving people the right to healthcare. Wait, what?

When a person says they are "pro-life", what they really mean is that they are anti-choice. What they're saying is that they want to take away your legal right, as a human, to make a choice different to the one they believe they would make in your place.  If someone is morally opposed to abortion, they  have every right to maintain an unplanned pregnancy, no one's trying to take that away from them. But if they make the mistake of thinking that their personal moral stance should be forcibly applied by legal means to everyone else in the country because they believe it... that must be opposed.  If it is not, and if the right to safe and legal abortion is repealed, what that will mean is that every other person in the USA has more rights over your body than you do. Because you can get pregnant, ergo because you're a woman.

You are not a second-class citizen. You are not the property of men in Congress. You are not a slave to the conservative anti-choicers. You are not an incubator. And you do not need to have been raped - "legitimate rape" or otherwise - to win the right to control your own body.

So yes, you should be angry about what Akin said. But you should probably be more angry about the fact that people like him have forced the pro-choice movement into a position where we have to plead special circumstances to maintain our right to make our own decisions.  So please, PLEASE - stop asking the "what if she was raped?" question.

Monday, 20 August 2012

How the media misses the point where religion is concerned

It's time I returned to my much-neglected blog. For some time now, I've been trying to care a little less about religion because it was beginning to affect other areas of my life too much; now, however, something's happened about which I cannot NOT comment.

Yesterday, the 19th of August 2012, many news outlets around the world reported that a child in Pakistan - part of a small, Christian community - had been arrested on suspicion of burning pages from the qur'an.  The girl in question is reported to be eleven years of age, and the mob's reaction to the "crime" she's accused of has led to hundreds of people being forced from their homes.  It is alleged that the child was beaten before being arrested, and that she may even face the death penalty for "blasphemy".

Now, I hope I don't need to point out to anyone all that's wrong with the idea of "blasphemy" as a crime - free speech, right to dissent etc. etc.. And I hope I don't need to explain why executing anyone for anything is a brutal and backwards way to run your country. But that's not what I want to talk about.

Here's what's pissing me off.  There are reports that the child may be mentally disabled; some outlets are saying she has Down's syndrome, others that she has an unspecified mental illness.  The BBC, in particular, seem to be making a big thing of this, as can be seen here:


What does it matter?! In any sane society, any person has the right to burn any damn book they like (as long as it's not rare or someone elses property), and little as we may like it we can't punish them for it.  The BBC and others, by making such a fuss of the possibility that this child is mentally disabled, are making an excuse for her that simply IS NOT REQUIRED.

If a mentally disabled person commits a crime, we quite rightly assess whether they were able to appreciate the wrongness and/or ramifications of what they were doing before we decide whether to punish them. If it is found that they could not understand why what they were doing was wrong, we don't imprison them although we may detain them for their own and others' safety.

Here's the catch; "blasphemy", by any non-insane definition, is not a crime. If this poor child DID burn a book, no one was harmed by that action. By being at such pains to point out that she may not have understood what she was doing, the BBC is lending credence to the ludicrous notion that what she did was wrong and in need of excusing.  This attitude is not only factually laughable, it's dangerous too since it carries the implication that threatening to execute this little girl would somehow be acceptable and reasonable were she not disabled.