Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.

On Black History Month

February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments

It is Black History Month.  Specialized history months exist for a reason.  They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history.  Take, for example, a typical US History survey course.  Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today.  In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress.  Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture.  Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.

But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men.  Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter.  Then they share centre-stage with the colonists.  Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion.  Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters.  Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.  As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery.  But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery.  Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves.  Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  And that’s it.  Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history.  Hence, Black History Month.

The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism.  The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively.  We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day.  Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history.  As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it.  Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy.  For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.

I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February).  The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents.  Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black.  He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.

Racism is very real.  And it is historic.  It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence.  It comes in more peaceable ways, too.  It is subtle, it is silent.  But it’s still very real.  Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States.  But this was inherited from the British.  The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit.  British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade.  In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee.  And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Why?  Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution.  I would suggest it was a failed revolution.  Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed.  And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners.  Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person.  The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War.  And today, we live in an era of  backlash against the Civl Rights Era.

All of this, though, is due to the weight of history.  On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later.  The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations.  Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society.  And this is not a uniquely American problem.  Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.

For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us.  And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month.  And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.

Argh. The Men’s Rights Movement

March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

Apparently one of the search terms that led people to my website is “why is it sexist and racist to have women’s day, black history month, but not white men’s day.”  Seriously.  As if every day isn’t already white men’s day.

On PK Subban and Controversy

February 27, 2014 § 8 Comments

Watching the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Sochi, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there is no way that PK Subban is the 8th best defenceman in the country.  He’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an offensive threat, a hitter of big hits, a puck carrier, and he’s a rock solid defenceman.  In short, Subban’s skill set seemed to fit exactly with what Canada needed, especially in the preliminary round when it was having problems moving the puck.  And while Subban makes mistakes, so, too, do Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, Canada’s golden boys of defencemen.  And surely, Subban was a better choice to play than Dan Hamhuis or Jay Bouwmeester, at the very least? But, no, not in the eyes of the coaches.  And, really, at the end of it all, what’s to quibble with?  Subban handled his demotion with grace, and Canada won the gold medal going away, making it two in a row for the men, and landing their first medal on the big ice of the European game.

Subban attracts attention and controversy wherever he goes.  A lot of it is racially charged, and a lot of it comes from people who should know better (which is everyone, frankly, this is the 21st century, not the early 19th).  Subban is many things that many hockey fans do not like: flamboyant, exuberant, and incredibly skilled.  As a result, aside from legitimate criticism, Subban attracts a lot of racist attention.  Let me be very clear: criticising Subban’s play for mistakes or boneheaded plays is not racism. But a lot of the static around Subban is race-based.

When Subban broke into the NHL back in 2009, a lot of the media discussion was about controlling Subban’s exuberance, about toning him down.  Oddly, when Maxime Lapierre played for the Habs, he was an energy player, who was always on the edge, running his mouth on the ice, irritating opponents, trying to goad them into penalties.  Sometimes he crossed the line.  But there were rarely discussions about the need to control or reign in Lapierre.  Unlike Lapierre, Subban can make an entire building of fans rise to their feet with a rush up the ice, the kind of thing we Habs fans haven’t seen since the glory days of Guy Lafleur, frankly.

And yet, Subban has been called out by nearly everyone in the hockey establishment for his allegedly cocky attitude, from  Don Cherry to Mike Richards, and everyone in between, including a few coaches of the Club du Hockey Canadien.

And criticisms are continually made about his play.  That he takes too many penalties.  That he gives away the puck too often. And so on.  Oddly, the Habs other young defencemen are not subject to this kind of criticism. It’s a given that defencemen take a long time to mature and they will make errors on the way.  And young players, especially, will be overly exuberant at times.  But they’re given leeway Subban is not, at least in the media and amongst some fans.

And yet, Subban’s penalty minutes are not egregious.  And, as far as his alleged poor defensive play, that’s just patently false, as this advanced stats discourse shows.  It even shows that Subban can more than carry his weight in relation to the rest of the dmen on the Olympic team.

I won’t even get into Darren Pang’s rather unfortunate mistake of referring to Subban not doing something the “white way,” as opposed to the “right way” (it was a slip of the tongue, he apologised immediately, but, we all know what Freud says of slips of the tongue).

Racism, especially in Canada, works insidiously.  There are certainly still loud mouth racists out there, but aside from the occasional offensive tweet or comment board post, that is not the discourse around Subban.  I could also point out that Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane is similarly targeted by the media for his alleged bad behaviour.  Kane is also black.  No, rather than outright racism, this works in a more callous manner, it creeps along, and we find Subban (and Kane) critiqued for behaving in a certain way when other, white Canadian players, are not.  We find the play of Subban (and Kane) under the microscope for alleged inefficiencies when others are not.  We see the the character of Subban (and Kane) under question, when white players’ characters are not.

Case in point.  After the 2011-12 season, Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the best dman in the NHL.  There were protests that Karlsson was a one-dimensional player, he was a defensive liability, etc.  That the likes of Doughty, Keith, Shea Weber deserved to win.  But the outcry died down pretty quickly when advanced stats showed that Karlsson is actually a pretty good defenceman.  And by the time the 2013 season finally began after an epic lockout, the controversy was over.  But here we are now, at the tail end of February, Subban won the Norris in June last year, and the controversy lives on.  Tell me that racism doesn’t play a role here.

The criticism directed at Subban is not of the ilk directed at other superstars, rather, it is unrelenting and often unfair and baseless.  It’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that PK Subban is resented by many in the hockey world (fans, media, players, coaches, managers) for something as simple as the colour of his skin.  And that, to me, is just stupid.

On Uganda’s Homophobic Laws

February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a law that toughens the country’s already rampantly homophobic laws, making some sexual acts subject to life in prison.  Being gay was already illegal in Uganda prior to this law being passed.  This law had been under discussion since 2009, and originally called for the death penalty for some sexual acts, and was originally tabled when the European Union objected.  It was revived last year.  President Musveni had flip flopped on whether or not he would sign the law, at one point arguing that gay people were “sick,” but didn’t require imprisonment, but help and treatment.  And just to make it absolutely where Musveni stands on the issue, he clarified his thoughts in this CNN article.  Musveni says:

They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they? I never knew what they were doing. I’ve been told recently that what they do is terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that that’s how he is born, abnormal. But now the proof is not there…”I was regarding it as an inborn problem.  Genetic distortion — that was my argument. But now our scientists have knocked this one out.

Charming.  Just charming.

Also in the past week, documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’s new film, God Loves Uganda has been making the rounds.  It is based largely on the undercover work of a Boston-based Anglican (Episcopalian in the US) priest, Kapya Kaoma.  In the film, we learn that missionaries from the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer have been proselytising in Uganda, preaching that God hates LGBT people.  Charming.

All of this is deeply unsettling.  Yesterday, I tweeted this

I immediately got into a discussion on several fronts about the role of these American missionaries in all of this, on several fronts.  I maintain that the IHOP missionaries are disgusting and an afront to humanity, but Uganda is to blame for this.  But I’m writing this to expand what one can say in 140 characters on Twitter.  One, being gay was already illegal in Uganda when the IHOP missionaries began spreading hate.  Two, the IHOP missionaries capitalised on the already extant homophobia in Uganda in their preaching.  And three, Uganda is responsible for its laws.  The missionaries are a handful of people in a nation of 36 million people.

To argue that the missionaries are entirely to blame is wrong-headed to me for several reasons.  First and foremost, it reflects an imperialist mindset to say that American missionaries went to Uganda and taught Ugandans that being gay is a sin and therefore Uganda passed a law that toughened anti-gay measures already in place.  To blame the missionaries removes Ugandan culpability here.  It also says that Ugandans are not capable of forming their own thoughts.  Being gay was already a crime in Uganda before the IHOP missionaries gained a following.  And Uganda is hardly alone in the world in an anti-gay stance.  I point to, say, for example, Russia (interestingly, Russia’s anti-gay laws are also based on conservative Christian thought).  The new law just expanded on earlier ones.

Ultimately, Uganda is responsible for this new law.  Musveni is responsible for signing it.  No missionary held a gun to his head, or bribed him.  It’s his doing.  And it’s entirely consistent with his thoughts on being gay to start with.  And its consistent with Ugandan thought before the advent of the missionaries.

 

Happy Black History Month

January 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m an historian.  I teach history.  I study history.  I write history.  I even think about it in my spare time.  February is Black History Month.  In theory, I support this.  I support the teaching of Black history.  As well as the history of other groups who have been marginalised, oppressed, and written out of history.  I remain deeply influenced by the New Left of the 1960s, particularly the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.  Black history has to be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, it has to be included in the story at the core.  Black History Month is important to raise awareness, but we need to do more than that if we’re ever going to get anything done.  African American history is central to the American story, and not just through slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.

I was struck nearly stupid by a post on NPR.org today, “What Does ‘Sold Down the River’ Really Mean?”  Seriously.  This is considered to be a newsworthy blog post by the leftist, liberal, listener-supported public radio station.  The comments on the story on Facebook are predictable in many ways.  There are the liberals having pedantic arguments about whether the apocryphal river is the Missouri, Mississippi, or the Niger, whether the provenance of the phrase is American or African.  On the actual post on NPR.org,the liberals are arguing about whether or not slavery still exists today in relation to agricultural workers from Central America.  But back on Facebook, there are also people claiming that this is race-baiting, or “playing the race card.”  Others say that there is no racism in America today. Others say that its racist to even have a Black History Month, because there is no equivalent White History Month.  These are the folks who call Women’s Day sexist because there’s no Men’s Day. And then there’s the one who says that this is all ancient history and belongs “up there on the shelf with the other antiques where it belongs.”

Pointing out the history of slavery and the historic oppression of black people in this country is neither race-baiting nor playing the race card.  Pointing out that racism still exists today is also not race-baiting or playing the race card.  In fact, from my experience, those who make such claims are doing to from a place of racism themselves.  As for the one who said that racism and slavery are ancient history and belong up on the shelf with the other antiques, well, the less said about that, the better.

As for the claim that Black History Month is racist because there’s no White History Month.  Well, it’s not often I will outright say an idea is stupid.  But this is an exception to that rule.  The majority of the history we teach, in primary and secondary schools, in university, is about dead white men.  Still.  In the early 21st century.  There is a reason for this, of course, and that’s because most survey history courses are overviews and, at least when it comes to North America and Europe, it is dead white men who were the kings, presidents, advisers, cardinals, popes, explorers, revolutionaries, politicians, and rebels.  In short, in the United States, the history curriculum is still overwhelmingly about white people, particularly white men. So the suggestion that Black History Month is racist is ludicrous, ridiculous, and downright stupid.

But, it’s stories like this, and the comments made on them, that point out the real need for Black History Month.  We do need to spend some time privileging African American history, if only to draw attention to it.  And then to include it in the rest of the curriculum.   A high school teacher commented on the Facebook post that slavery IS taught in the schools, and to suggest otherwise is wrong and stupid.  Well, yes, it is taught.  And then once we get past the Civil War and Reconstruction, black history isn’t generally deal with again until the Civil Rights era, but then that’s it.  So, black history appears in relation to slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights.  In short, when the national story was dominated by issues related to race and African Americans.  When race and African Americans aren’t part of the national story, it’s back to the sidelines.  I don’ think this is good, it doesn’t create an inclusive history, it is an exclusive history.  The same is true of women and other minorities.

This NPR story and the comments to it on Facebook and NPR show that rather than moving towards a post-racial society (hey, remember those dreams in 2008?), we are caught in a stasis, and we need Black History Month now as much as ever.

 

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