Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Garden of Love by William Blake

My favourite poem and a work of effortless-seeming genius:

I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dankblake
Weeping, weeping.

Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

The poem lends itself to over-analysis, perhaps because it is so well crafted. I don’t think there’s much meaning to look for other than what is baldly and simply stated right there in the text, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.

There are two things that make this poem great.

First, it’s a triumph of showing instead of telling.  The overwhelming tone is one of sadness and long, slow-burning frustration, but the only complaint comes from the thistles and thorns.  Blake is merely observing things as they are without comment and yet sadness weeps from every line.

Second, those last two lines. I don’t think I’ve seen anything more powerful. They could stand as a poem by themselves.  They seem to amplify the sadness with a rising fury.

I wish I could use language and craft words that way.  And I wish I could read the damn thing without crying.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thunderf00t does it again

I’m not at all sure which is worse: the pointless spite and vitriol, the sheer blindness to a genuine issue or the unbelievably fuck-witted arguments.  But Thunderf00t is back in the saddle with his particular brand of idiocy.

I wasn’t sure whether to write about this post since the whole thing is so painfully, embarrassingly, foolish but I felt compelled to since it is such a perfect example of someone deliberately misinterpreting what people say in order to score dubious points. Which is pretty much what Tf does now.

She [Surly Amy] was apparently reduced to tears simply because someone wore a Tshirt (see below).

She wasn’t.  She says so.  I see no reason to disbelieve her.  She made one post where it did look a bit like a t-shirt made her cry and a later clarification where she says it didn’t. Tf takes the bizarre step of deciding that the latter was an attempt to re-write history.  This is the greater part of Tf’s ‘point’: that Amy’s posts show inconsistencies therefore…… well, I’m not sure because Tf doesn’t say. I’m not sure how being inconsistent in writing necessarily invalidates a point, but as we’ll see, Amy is not inconsistent anyway.  But I’m getting ahead of myself:

If you are banging your head on the desk in disbelief at the moment I just want to remind you that this is a girl who blogs regularly onskepchick, and has been supported by freethoughtblogs.  She’s also the girl who makes those little ceramic pendants that many people wear (or maybe used to wear at conferences before Amy’s crying over a Tshirt antics).  Indeed the only way I think you might have a chance of explaining her self-centered position to Amy is though the concept of reciprocation.  How would she feel if I were to be in tears because of people wearing those little ceramic pendants at conferences, suggesting that they indicate people support her anti-freespeech position, and that merely wearing these pendants is ‘dehumanizing’ and ‘very hurtful to me’, with the clear expectation that everyone else should conform to behaviors that I do not find hurtful or offensive: anything less would just be hateful.

Let’s ignore the condescending use of ‘girl’ and the dismissive tone. Tf is drawing a false equivalence.  Harriet’s shirt could easily have been interpreted as a personal attack on Amy and the other Skepchicks. In fact, I find it very difficult to interpret it any other way.  If someone I’d previously felt was an ally, maybe even a friend, wore a t-shirt – in public, in a position of some power – which insulted me and my friends personally, I’d be offended.  I’d be upset.  I wouldn’t demand that she remove the shirt.  I wouldn’t try to infringe on her freedom of speech. Amy did neither of these things either (Tf is lying when he claims Amy has an ‘anti-freespeech position’). I’d sure as hell say something to her though and explain why I thought the message was hurtful. Which is in fact what Amy did.

This situation is entirely different to the arbitrary one Tf conjures up.  His feigned offence would be entirely arbitrary.  It would not be based on a personal insult, intended or otherwise.  It would not be a case of someone sending a clear message from a prominent position without much of an opportunity to respond to the audience it was aimed at. These two situations are not the same at all.  Tf is trying to make Amy look absurd by drawing this false equivalence, but it is so ham-fistedly done that he only splatters himself with the backfire.

Yup, I’m pretty sure Amy would fairly quickly come around to the position that just because someone takes offense at a t-shirt (or similar), no how matter how hysterical the outburst, it really should have no impact on the way conferences are run.

Unless that t-shirt were a deliberate attempt at bullying. For example, if the shirt were designed to make a group of people feel uncomfortable or unwelcome or to feel bad, then I’d rather hope the conference organisers would gently put a stop to it.  I’m not saying that Harriet’s shirt intended any such thing.  In fact, Harriet has been surprisingly quiet about why she promoted that particular message.  But I certainly don’t condemn Amy for feeling that it was a personal attack.  That’s the way I read it too. 

But let’s look a little more closely at what Tf is really saying here.  He’s talking about conference harassment policies, of course.  He seems to be saying that Amy claims we need (presumably overly strict) harassment policies at conferences just because someone was offended at a t-shirt.  I’m not aware that she made any such argument (I doubt it) but Tf strongly implies that she did.  He also conveniently misses out the point that a t-shirt can genuinely be offensive.

I know, I know (I know, alright, stop saying I don’t know!) that nobody has the right not to be offended.  And as far as I can tell, this is how Amy treated the situation. She was offended by it and said so.  She questioned Harriet’s decision to wear it.  She condemned the message as a bullying one. And that’s all. She didn’t call for t-shirt censorship at TAM or anywhere else. 

So what’s the problem?  Apparently that Thunderf00t doesn’t think the t-shirt was an adequate reason for Amy to get upset. Personally, I think I’d rather let the targets of bullying decide what’s offensive.  A lot of bullying went on at my school.  If anyone reported what was said or done to them, it often sounded inoffensive or absurd.  But the hurtful part wasn’t always what was said or done so much as the fact that a particular person was singled out for it, often repeatedly, sometimes for years.  Tf doesn’t get to decide what people should be upset by and ridiculing upset people seems insensitive at best.

Now it turns out Amy Roth has since issued a ‘clarification’.  It’s often said that a clarification is not made to make oneself clear, but to put oneself in the clear.  Regrettably that only works if you are honest and/or competent, rather than just the shamelessly self serving ‘Rebecca Watson’ type attempt to rewrite history.

Thunderf00t has no reason to believe that Amy was trying to rewrite history (and just look at the list of slimy accusations he makes in that one paragraph).  Let’s dissect his argument.

He points out that on July 17th, Amy wrote:

I think one of the most hurtful things I experienced while attending TAM was Harriet Hall’s Tshirt that she wore three days in a row. I told her through tears, in the speakers’ lounge, that it was dehumanizing and gender/color blind and very hurtful to me specifically as a person who does have to deal with harassment regularly.

And then that on 18th said:

So know that just a ‘silly tshirt’ did not reduce me to tears. Sadly, there was a lot more going on.

Tf’s insightful comment on this is:

Yup in just one day, a T-shirt goes from “dehumanizing”, “gender/color blind” and “very hurtful” to now just a “silly tshirt”.  Think someone is trying to shamelessly rewrite history there Amy!

I genuinely don’t understand how an honest person could come to this conclusion.

For one thing, a t-shirt can be dehuminishing, gender/color blind and very hurtful while at the same time being silly.  More relevantly, though, it seems clear that in her second comment Amy was refuting claims by others that a ‘silly t-shirt’ (he quotes) made her cry.  She has said it didn’t. She was already crying because of other stuff. 

She has not changed her stance on the fact that she was upset by the shirt for the reasons she stated and there is certainly no reason to suspect that she’s trying to rewrite history.  That seems a crazily-paranoid interpretation at best.

Tf’s cherry-picking is even more shameless in his next point:

on July 17th, Amy wrote:

I said I was glad she [Harriet] felt safe and that I wouldn’t have sent 22 women to the event if I didn’t think it was safe for them either. So who was she talking to?”

and Tf adds:

Bravo Amy for saying how you think TAM is safe.  Great so what was all the ‘we want a policy and to lynch someone at TAM’ tantrum of FTB and skepchick all about?

‘Lynch’? WTF, Thunderf00t, whoever said anything about lynching?  This is an excellent example of those‘reasoned arguments’ you are so proud of.  It was hardly a tantrum, either.  And you already know the answer anyway: some people think that conferences are better if they have harassment policies so that people can feel safer. Nobody intends that they be used to prevent people from having fun, but to help people who are actually harassed: a thing which actually does happen. Tf just can’t resist putting these sneering little jibes, based on gross misrepresentations of what anyone actually said, into every paragraph, like a petulant child.

Oh wait…. wait… Amy is about to retell the story….

Let’s see, shall we?  On 18th she said:

I hope that Harriet will realize why it was so hurtful and why I was offended by both the front and the back. Some of us have been harassed at events and do not feel safe. The shirt was also hurtful to those in that context as well.

I read that as a partial explanation of why she was offended by Harriet’s shirt and why she feels others might have been offended too.  Thunderf00t, on the other hand, has a different (read ‘batshit insane’) interpretation:

Bravo Amy, Bravo (slow hand clap), so now we have two sequentially, mutually inconsistent accounts of ‘history’ from the same person, both given within about a day of each other.  One in which TAM is safe, and that’s why you have worked to send people there, and in the other versions of ‘Skepchick’ history, where you worked to send people to an environment that was not safe, indeed that you worked to send women to an environment populated by “gropers and PUAs and drunk fumblers“.  **SLOW HAND CLAP**

There is nothing inconsistent with what Amy said unless you read it with deliberate dishonesty. First she said that she thought TAM was safe at least at the time she raised funds to send women there.  Then she says that Harriet’s shirt might have been offensive to people who had been harassed at events (she doesn’t even mention TAM) and who might, consequently not feel safe. 

She said nothing about whether TAM was safe or otherwise, just that the shirt might have offended people who didn’t feel safe.

There is no inconsistency here and again, no possible attempt to rewrite history.

Tf then quotes Amy saying that she respects Harriet and hopes that one day she’ll understand why her shirt was hurtful and then:

I will continue to try to be a better person and I will continue to try to help other people get involved and to set an example of kind, productive, proactive behavior in hopes that more people will follow my lead than the those who want to mock and belittle.

This, Tf argues, is a case of double standards.  Why? Because Rebecca Watson – a person who is not Amy – thinks that:

[…] people (notably myself and Paula Kirby) who disagree with them on reason based arguments, actually all think they are a Totalitarian Nazis clique.

Go and see for yourself.  I think anyone honest can see that Rebecca is being flippant and employing sarcasm.  She is ridiculing Paul Kirby’s ludicrous name-calling.  It is perfectly clear that she (Rebecca) doesn’t really believe that Paula believes there’s an exact equivalence between Skepchics and Nazi Germany, although the quotes from Paula do explicitly compare the organisation to undesirable aspects of the regime in the old East Germany.  To be fair, I don’t know why Rebecca includes Thunderf00t in this part of her article,  I’m not aware of his using the same slurs as Paula (although my impression is that he endorses her). 

But who cares?  Tf’s argument is invalid anyway.  Amy’s personal statement that she wants to continue trying to be a better person and setting a good example would be in no way contradicted by someone else thinking that “people (notably myself and Paula Kirby) who disagree with them on reason based arguments, actually all think they are a Totalitarian Nazis clique.”  Something, of course, that Rebecca (regardless of what she thinks Paula thinks) categorically did not say.  She took some very specific quotes from Paula (not a reasoned argument in any way) and represented them on face value. And ridiculed them.

Thunderf00t is a liar and a bully. He misrepresents what people say and ridicules people who are genuinely upset because he has decided that they shouldn’t be.  Then he makes transparently bogus arguments that his mis-representations and ridicule somehow undermine the arguments.

I’ve no idea why anyone takes that idiot seriously.

Monday, July 23, 2012

You have lost your way, JREF

I love Randi and what he’s achieved, but it’s been clear for a while that I can no longer support JREF.  The decision hurts me more than it hurts JREF, of course, I’ve donated not much more than a hundred or two dollars or so a year, although I’ve done so for 15 years or so now, I guess. They won’t miss me, but I will miss them.

Much has gone wrong with that organisation recently. I’ve had personal disappointments that I won’t go too far into (but see later) and there have been more important public failures which we all know about.

Sadly, the organisation has fallen into the hands of the politically motivated.  I supported that move when it happened. I was excited by it. I thought JREF would grow as a result. But we ended up with presidents like Phil Plait who didn’t really seem to do anything at all and then DJ Grothe who has squandered away much of the goodwill built over the decades.

The JREF was a lot better when it was just Randi with his million dollars and I don’t think it has survived the transition to whatever it thinks it is now. Super sorry for supporting that transition.

I’ve been told off a few times (by the author and the editor) on the Swift blog for politely disagreeing with the author in the comments. A few days before one of those incidents, three regular commenters disagreed with one of my comments and spent a lot of time attacking me personally.  I don’t mind being attacked, but it was amazing that those people who made horrible, unwarranted personal remarks weren’t disciplined at all, but I, who only argued politely with the author of a later post was told to shut up. I complained about those attacks, by the way.  The JREF editor told me that the people shouldn’t have written those things.  Thanks, that helped a whole lot.

The JREF has lost its way. It has employed entirely the wrong people and embraced the wrong things. It will never get another penny from me. 

I never thought I’d say that.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jesus & Mo on ‘sophisticated theology’ for more.

One of the most frequent allegations levelled against Richard Dawkins in the wake of The God Delusion was that his theology wasn’t sophisticated enough and that he didn’t know enough about religion to criticise it. 

Atheists such as Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers counter-argued that ‘sophisticated theology’ turns out to be pretty empty stuff when you actually read it.  Lots of it involves redefining god so his existence can’t be disproved (by throwing out any claims about god that can be tested and using words like ‘transcendent’). 

These counter-arguments are valid and entertaining, but there’s a more fundamental one: the things actual religious people say about their religion are – as the barmaid puts it – absurd and are without evidence of any plausible standard.

This should be enough for any rational person to discount religion. We don’t need to know any more about it than that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I can and will not understand this

Harriet Hall wore this t-shirt at TAM 2012

It says “I feel safe and welcome at TAM”.

This is the back:

What possible motive could Harriet have for wearing this (for at least 3 days in a row)?

It can only be a passive aggressive dig at people who are concerned about harassment at conferences. And at the Skepchicks in particular, a weirdly personal attack. 

The kindest interpretation I can come up with is “shut up, ladies”.  This is the problem I have with the shirt. I don’t mind her being an arsehole, but I do mind her slapping the faces of those who do not feel safe and welcome, as though their experiences don’t matter.  Blaming her grievance on the Skepchicks is as nasty as it is pointless.

Besides, there’s a lot of misinformation and wilful ignorance about this issue. Nobody mentioned TAM until DJ Grothe suddenly said that women like Rebecca and Ophelia were scaring women away by talking about their experiences at conferences and in the atheist/skeptical community in general

Then people started talking about TAM, but I don’t think anyone singled it out as a particular problematic conference.  For instance, Rebecca decided not to go to TAM because she didn’t feel safe in the community, not because she didn’t feel safe specifically at TAM.

Update: Sastra reports here that she spoke to Harriet at TAM and that I might have misjudged her motives.  I remain only half convinced and Sastra herself isn’t quite sure she understands Harriet’s reasoning. 


[Harriet] likes the Skepchick website, reads it, and was appalled at the vitriol and online attacks aimed at Rebecca and other women over elevatorgate and pretty much everything else. She does not doubt that women are harassed and discriminated against. She considers herself a feminist.

Harriet also applauded Pamela Gay’s talk at TAM 2012 and was part of the standing ovation. 




The commenters above who suggested that she is making a point that women should aim to eliminate bias by refusing to be minimized into a “woman skeptic” category are correct. Harriet is old school, and she suggested that it’s possibly a generational thing. She doesn’t object to the Skepchicks, mind you. She’s not against them. She was very careful to make sure the back of her shirt had a small “s” on skepchicks.

It was a point that occurred to me, but it seemed (and still seems) incongruous with the wording of her t-shirt, especially the word ‘skepchick’.  The small ‘s’ comment is very strange.  If I were more even more cynical than I actually am, I’d say it sounds like plausible deniability.  Who calls themself a skepchick except for the Skepchicks themselves? 

I told her I was afraid this fine distinction would be lost.

I guess I can accept that it was bad communication on Harriet’s part, but that is so uncharacteristic of her that it’s quite a stretch to believe it.  Especially since Sastra suspects Harriet was aware of some of the wtf? comments that were turning up on the web, yet continued to wear the shirt.  If I thought that people en masse had misunderstood my message, I’d stop saying it and do my best to correct it.

My understanding is that she was defending TAM — and responding directly to something Rebecca Watson apparently wrote a day or so before the conference: “I do not feel safe or welcome at TAM” — the implication being that women in general should not feel safe or welcome at TAM. She thinks that’s nonsense.

And it is indeed nonsense, but in more ways than one because Rebecca did not say that. You can read about it in her own words here

In no way does she imply that “women in general should not feel safe or welcome at TAM.”  She says she’s not going to TAM because she finds DJ Grothe’s policy of blaming the victim and hushing up instances of abuse deplorable. She writes:

So when it comes to DJ Grothe, I can no longer support someone who is so incredibly dismissive of women’s experiences. I can’t give my time and money and energy to a man who blames women for speaking out about their own harassment, and I can’t give my time and money and energy to the organization he runs. I will always have the utmost respect for James Randi, who is responsible for inspiring me and millions of others to think critically and fight dangerous pseudoscience and superstition. It makes me incredibly sad that I can no longer support JREF.

So if this is Harriet’s motivation, minus several million for comprehension skills. And besides, ‘defending TAM’ against Rebecca Watson seems like agreeing (tacitly or explicitly) with DJ Grothe, which seems to jibe poorly with her appreciation of Pamela’s talk.

Sastra says:

I told her I thought she misunderstood the nuances of the situation: she told me she had on the contrary taken a fair amount of time to read from many sources and understood it all very well, thank you.

Perhaps Sastra is right. Quite a lot of otherwise intelligent, sensitive people seem to have misunderstood the nuances of this issue and it might explain Harriet’s apparent tin ear with the small s in skepchick.

But I’m only half convinced.  My (entirely speculative) suspicion is that Harriet decided in advance that Rebecca was being a drama queen and only read the first part of her statement on why she wouldn’t be attending TAM.  Her t-shirt is consistent with that, too, and this attitude is typical of many who disagree with Rebecca on this issue.

So I’m with Sastra in saying wtf.  And I’m with Ophelia in not understanding why someone would do that.  Personally, I’d work damn hard to make sure I really understood the issue and wasn’t kidding myself before wearing a shirt like that when giving talks at a major conference.  The inclusion of ‘skepchick’ on the shirt is by itself strong evidence that she didn’t do that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

So late to the party that all there’s left to drink is Malibu and tins of Carlsberg with fag ends in

So……Paula Kirby, then.  I’ve been meaning to write about her for some time, but the whole business is so depressing and I haven’t had time to do the whole business justice.  Fortunately, now that everyone else has had a go, I don’t have to.

I knew Paula when she was a fledgling atheist on the RDF forum, a curious, insightful person letting go of god.  She (rightly) impressed a lot of people and gained a deservedly large audience.   This is why her recent behaviour is so depressing: it’s unpleasant indeed to see someone I previously admired acting like such an idiot

I first heard her views on sexism at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin (yes, the Elevatorgate one). I was surprised then at her message that everything was totally fine and there was no problem with sexism in the movement. Fortunately, Rebecca was there to show us more of the ugly side of skeptical and atheistic sexism.  It’s great that Paula has never had problems with sexism, but it’s somewhat perverse to argue from that position that sexism isn’t a problem.

And now she’s taken to writing stupid shit.

I’ve made a few attempts at dissecting parts of her fact-free essay but others have got there before me. Jadehawk has a good one, for example.  I don’t think I have much to say that Jadehawk didn’t except to stress that I still don’t understand what bullying Paula and her friends are referring to.  She doesn’t provide a single example of such bullying in her essay and I haven’t been able to ask her about it on Twitter because she blocked me for politely asking her about a separate (but equally stupid) comment she posted there.

Monday, July 09, 2012

I’m holding out for a hero

My older brother is about the most po-faced person I’ve ever met, the cynical old bastard. A few years ago I told him I was about to meet a few of my heroes (Dawkins, Ridley, Ward and Hurlbert, as it happens).  I was excited but my brother was contemptuous.  He doesn’t have any heroes. He doesn’t understand why anyone would.. Also he doesn’t like the name of my new cat.

Understand, of course, that as a brother ten years my senior he was my hero for many years. I didn’t try to emulate him, although we ended up doing similar things, but when I was a kid I wanted to be more like him (we are not very alike).  He still has many admirable qualities, but he’s no longer my hero. This is less of a demotion on his part than a development on my part of what sort of things I admire.

I’m not at all ashamed to have heroes.  They are all people who have achieved extraordinary things, but they’re sometimes unsung.  Some of my heroes are big names in the atheist and skeptical movements.  Dawkins, Benson, Randi, Watson, Christina, PZ, in no particular order are names that come to mind.  I have historical heroes too, mostly scientists: Lovelace, Curie, Darwin, Franklyn, Newton, Einstein, Turing, for example.  But also poets such as Coleridge and Blake and artists such as Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh.

But my heroes at the moment are those bloggers and commenters and other people who are taking a stand about what the atheism and skeptical movements could be.  While atheism is technically described as lack of belief in gods and skepticism is defined as a desire for appropriate evidence before some proposition is accepted, the realities of those positions can be different.

I’m an atheist because I cannot believe in any kind of god, but also because I think notions of god are dreadful and to be campaigned against.  I’m an atheist because it is necessary to point out the horrible things that only religions can get away with and because there are people the world over committed to not letting that happen. 

Those people are my heroes at the moment. I can’t do that.  My skills lie in ripping apart poorly formed arguments; ridiculous attention to detail; and interminable point-by-point rebuttals. These are not skills that are in short supply in this community and while they’re necessary and fun, they are not the sort of skills that change the world.  That will be done by people who can organise and cajole: people charismatic and smart enough to persuade without compromise. 

Those people are my heroes at the moment and most of them are bloggers, commenters and just random insightful and hilarious people.  Congratulations, because you’re the people who make the Internet and the movements great.

And brother: there is nothing wrong with calling a cat Fortran.

No religion = riots

Taking part in a riot can be an ecstatic, spiritual experience, says The Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells*

I bet he does. I bet he does. You see, that way he car argue (without the slightest evidence) that the reason people riot is a lack of spiritual experience elsewhere and the cure for this is of course (again without evidence) religion.

In a brilliant flash of self-importance, the church has even invented a new kind of sin to explain riots:

The report said that clergy have been ‘working with the concept of structural sin which recognises how people on all sides of conflicts can face moral choices that are not between what is clearly right and clearly wrong but which are necessitated by circumstances in response to situations where much has gone wrong already’.

It doesn’t really seem to work.  The moral choice facing the rioters in the UK last year was not ‘necessary’: they were not forced to choose whether or not to riot. There was no social injustice so great that they had no option but to….break into shops and steal trainers or mug innocent and bewildered victims in the streets… 

Structural sin seems more like a further excuse for the church to meddle in politics.

*Warning, may not drown babies in the font during baptisms then eat them in the vestry later.