On outnumbering and being Outnumbered

Unearnt privilege is real.  Unearnt privilege is also invisible.

Because privilege is invisible, those of us who have it (hi, straight white male here) can often be unaware of it, even when we’re actively exercising it; and this can lead us to think it isn’t real.  This can lead us to insist it isn’t real, particularly when we’re being called out for having (unwittingly or otherwise) profited by it.

But it is real.  If you’re in America and society perceives you as male, or white, or straight, or rich, or Christian (to name just a few big ones), then society affords you a latitude, society caters to your preferences and to your comfort, in ways that it simply doesn’t do for people it perceives as not belonging to those privileged groups.  It makes life for you easier and makes sure you feel more important.  That isn’t to say it makes life easy or makes you feel important, simply easier and more important than would be the case if you belonged to one of the non-privileged groups.

Gear change. I really love this piece in Cosmopolitan calling out Fox News’s Outnumbered for their paternalistic attempt to tell Cosmo to stay in their place and cover issues women should be reading about (fashion and pleasing men in bed, obvs) while leaving politics with the men, where it belongs.  In its tone, in its substance, in its perception, the essay is perfect from start to end.

And it got me thinking about the title of the show.  Outnumbered.  I’m already predisposed to dislike that title, because I don’t appreciate a cable news show appropriating the name of the most hilarious parenting sitcom ever televised.

But if you’re someone who I’ve claimed, up above, that our society gives you unearnt privilege, just for being you, and you’re sitting there thinking that’s a load of bullshit, that what you have, you’ve earnt, and it’s patent liberal hypocrisy of me to use claims of equality in order to give women or racial minorities or LGBTs special treatment, then think about the title of Outnumbered.

This is Fox News’s attempt to get women watching them in the middle of the day, since, after all, the daytime TV market is predominantly female.  And yet it’s not called Outnumbering or In the Majority or anything to emphasise the women who comprise most of its panel.  Instead it’s called Outnumbered.  The producers of this show, in their quest to appeal to women viewers, still take it totally for granted that even in something so fundamental as the show’s title, their audience are by default going to share the perspective of the one male panelist rather than his female colleagues.

That’s not the most pernicious, or pervasive, or harmful manifestation of privilege I could think of, not by a long shot.  It’s not even the worst instance of it just in the criticisms of Outnumbered cited in the Cosmopolitan essay.  But it’s a tremendously clear one.


Why supporting marriage equality is the only way to defend marriage

I’ve always felt strongly that denial of marriage equality is an attack not just upon the rights of LGBTs but also upon marriage itself.  And I’ve always found it incredibly galling that the very people who cloak themselves so self-righteously in the mantle of marriage’s defenders, even as its martyrs, are exactly the ones who are attacking it–are the only ones who are attacking it.  How dare they tell me that they’re defending the marriage Lisa and I have built, when they are the ones who are cheapening it?  When they are the ones turning it from a celebration of loving and lifelong commitment into a symbol of the majority’s privilege over the minority?  From something beautiful into something ugly?

When two loving adults choose to make a formal declaration of the exclusive, lifelong nature of their commitment to each other; when they choose to seek state sanction for their relationship; that is what makes marriage stronger.  That is what makes all marriages stronger.  That is what preserves and strengthens and renews the institution of marriage for our children–all our children, theirs and mine and yours–and increases the chance that when the time comes, they too will be able to find a partner they can build their life with, because it fosters a society that values love and monogamy and consent and fidelity and stability and self-expression.

This is what privilege does, of course.  It coarsens us as human beings, makes all of us worse off.  It lessens our humanity.

Privilege is, at heart, a denial that the unprivileged are fully human–in the case of marriage equality, a denial that LGBTs possess the same right to marry the person they love that we amongst the straight majority take for granted.  Simply by accepting such privilege without speaking or acting against it, we would undermine our own humanity; but those who seek actively to maintain it, those who claim to be “defending” marriage, are doing themselves far more harm.  They have turned themselves, whether to a greater or lesser extent, into smaller, pettier, more jealous, more resentful, more outraged human beings than they could otherwise be, people who feel entitled to form an opinion on what rights others are allowed without it ever even occurring to them that they could be subjected to the same judgement themselves.  Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, whether they would phrase it this way or not, they have somehow come to believe that the quality of their own marriage is undermined in any way simply by another couple having the right to marry each other, if that couple happen to look the same naked.  They have come to believe that their own marriage matters less if it is part of a right everyone enjoys rather than a privilege they can content themselves is denied to others.

This is what privilege does.  It convinces us that we are doing the honest, fair, praiseworthy thing by denying others their rights, denying them their humanity.  It’s as if we have some idea that once the minority get that right too, there will be less of it left for us to enjoy, that we won’t be able to partake of it to the same extent as we did back when it was a privilege just for us.  But it’s exactly the opposite that is true.

I feel sorry for them.  I do.  But that doesn’t mean I ever lose sight for one second of the fact that they are hurting people–real, live people.  They are hurting LGBTs the most, that’s unquestionable, but by attacking marriage itself, they’re hurting the rest of us, too; they’re hurting me, and they’re even hurting themselves.


Turning Chick-fil-A into something good

There used to be two businesses we refused to frequent because I felt skeevy giving them my money.  One was Chick-fil-A; the other was Walmart.  But then there came a time when I found something out about the place we went instead of Walmart, and I realised something.  I came to think I couldn’t object to shopping at one place for its objectionable practices or support of objectionable causes if I wasn’t prepared to check into each and every place I frequented to make sure they weren’t doing anything I objected to.  So for some time now, we’ve occasionally shopped at Walmart or eaten at Chick-fil-A.

Of course, for the past week or so, we’ve again foregone Chick-fil-A.  But I’ve not been able to help feeling like that doesn’t really mean anything.  Chick-fil-A’s certainly not aware of the loss of the ten dollars they’d have made off us on Saturday, when we drove past one right as we wanted lunch on our way back from the Liverpool-Tottenham match in Baltimore.  And that would probably have been the only time in July or August that we visited them.  I just can’t shake the feeling that a personal boycott doesn’t actually hurt either Chick-fil-A or the hateful organisations that they support, and it doesn’t actually help the cause of gay rights that all our outrage is supposed to be in support of.  It seems to me that it’s more about making myself feel smug and feel like I’ve helped a cause when actually, really, I haven’t.

But obviously, just doing nothing isn’t acceptable either.  If a personal boycott feels like it accomplishes nothing, then simply continuing to patronise Chick-fil-A is actively hurting the people that Chick-fil-A makes its donations to hurt.

I crunched some numbers.  Chick-fil-A took in $4.1 billion last year.  The year before that, they donated $2 million to seven organisations that Business Insider describes as “anti-gay”.  Now, I’m not going to dispute that pretty much all the organisations on this list hold noxious positions on equality and civil rights when we’re talking about the rights in question being exercised with people whose sexuality they don’t like.  But the lion’s share of the money is going places like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the National Christian Foundation, organisations for whom anti-gay campaigning isn’t really at all a major focus of what they do.  I don’t think that makes those organisations okay, but I do think we need to make a distinction between them and pure hate groups such as the Family Research Council, whose sole concern is hating gays and who received a thousand bucks from Chick-fil-A in 2010.

If our family of four swing by Chick-fil-A and spend sixteen dollars, therefore, we’re spending about four-fifths of a penny toward those seven organisations, and about .0004 cents toward the Family Research Council.  If we eat there, say, six times a year (probably a lot for us), we’ve contributed about two and a half cents and .0024 cents respectively.

So here’s what we’re going to do.  We’re going to make a ten-dollar donation to a gay rights group; we don’t know which one yet.  And if, at any point in a calendar year, we eat at Chick-fil-A, then come the New Year, we’re going to make another ten dollar donation.  Is ten dollars a lot?  Not in the grand scheme of things, no.  But when it comes to this family, Chick-fil-A is going to be responsible for orders of magnitude more money going to gay rights than toward hate.


SOPA, PIPA and sopapillas

ETA: Within about two minutes of posting this, I watched an excellent summary of the current state of SOPA and PIPA pop up in my e-reader from Making Light.  A wonderful highlight of some of the bills’ most egregious freedom of speech implications.

Yesterday, 18 January, was SOPA Blackout Day, when websites all across the Internet ideally went dark (like Wikipedia), or else put up educational messages (like Google), to raise awareness about the real threat to freedom of expression, and freedom in general, posed by SOPA and PIPA.

And it seems it worked.  On the tide of a groundswell of phone calls and emails, U.S. senators and members of Congress backed off SOPA and PIPA in large numbers.  Many, including even several of the bills’ co-sponsors, explicitly turned against it, for which they’re to be commended.  Others refused to formally renounce it, instead choosing to state that they have reservations about the bills in their current form, and are going to want to work on them some more to improve them; they probably aren’t to be trusted on this issue and should have an eye kept on them until the matter comes to a vote.

What really caught my eye about the congressional renunciation of SOPA and PIPA, though, and what troubles me about it, was that it was a wholly Republican-led phenomenon.  It was predominantly Republicans who condemned the bills, Republican co-sponsors who loudly took their names off them; it was predominantly Democrats who tried to sound like they were distancing themselves from them while retaining the freedom of action to vote for them once public scrutiny has faded.

Call me socialist.  Call me progressive.  Call me liberal.  I embrace all three labels.  I’m a socialist because I believe that it is through society that we can best foster the flowering of the individual.  I’m a progressive because I believe in progress, in a future that’s better than our present.  I’m a liberal because I believe in freedom and opportunity for everyone, and not just for the privileged.

What I’ve found is that very often–perhaps even always, though I shy away from absolute statements–those three different things boil down to one core issue: when the powerful wage war upon the weak, I side with the weak.

This is why I overwhelmingly find myself aligned more closely with Democrats than Republicans in American politics.  It’s not that Democrats can be relied upon to side with the weak when the strong come after them, because they can’t.  There’s always a sizable faction of Dems aligning with the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party on the side of the strong.  But what voices there are consistently rising in support of the weak are Democratic voices.

We’ve seen it time and again over the past ten years.  The movement to roll back our civil liberties and stifle our freedom of action through things like the USA PATRIOT Act.  Efforts to decide whether marriage to the person you love is a right enjoyed by all Americans, or a privilege restricted only to the heterosexual portion of the population.  The debate over how the burden of adequately funding (or inadequately funding) our government should be distributed over the economic spectrum of our society.  Efforts to strip workers of the protections that trade unions provide them.  The fight to ensure that no one in America should have to choose between bankruptcy and illness.  Consistently, in all those national conversations, I’ve watched the Republican Party and a sizable faction of the Democratic Party on the side of the strong, while on the side of the weak are the other faction of the Democrats, either alone or buttressed by a small, fringe minority of Republicans calling themselves libertarians.

SOPA and PIPA are unambiguously attacks on the weak by the strong.  Everything in them stacks the deck against those without resources and in favour of those with them, from the way they punish someone simply for having an accusation made against them, to the provisions designed to ensure that, when the accusers actually are found to have deployed the laws unjustly and abusively, they’re immune from suffering any penalty–like the penalty they will already have visited upon their target.

And today, it’s the Republicans who stand with the weak, and the Democrats standing with the strong.

I’m a copyright holder.  I’m in exactly the demographic PIPA and SOPA claim to be protecting.  Copyright and copyright protection are important to me, both in terms of my own copyright and livelihood, and in terms of copyright as an intellectual principle.  And online piracy is a grave threat to copyright and needs to be combatted.  But PIPA and SOPA are not acceptable ways of doing that.  They would, in fact, greatly limit my ability to exploit my copyright, by restricting and penalising the free flow of discussion and ideas.

FiveThirtyEight presented an obvious reason why the congressional parties should align the way they seem to have here: ninety per cent of political contributions from Hollywood go to the Democratic Party.  Which raises another salient point about yesterday’s win over SOPA and PIPA:

It’s only temporary.

Truckloads of money will continue to trundle across the country from California to the District of Columbia.  And every provision in those bills will be back.  It might be under the same name; it might not.  Certainly, there’ll be more circumspection about how it’s reintroduced.  But if we’re not prepared to act, again, against it, then it will come to pass.


The elephant on the front page

First Palin.  Then Trump.  Then Bachmann.  Gingrich.  Cain.  Perry.  Pinochet.  Gingrich again.  Pinochet again.  Now it’s even Ron Paul.

Every time this happens, it’s the same story, and I genuinely don’t understand why it’s treated as a unique event.  I don’t understand why we’re not getting exactly the same lede to start off the story every time: The economic and religious movements that drive the Republican Party have further confirmed their deep ambivalence between nominating an individual who will recapture the Presidency in 2012, and their desire that their nominee pass a checklist of discredited reactionary, oligarchic, plutocratic, anti-democratic, xenophobic, fascistic and borderline sociopathic positions on social and fiscal policy that would instantly disqualify any such nominee from receiving the vote of any rational, reflective voter considering the respective merits of the candidate.

Barack Obama should be profoundly vulnerable in the 2012 election.  He’s consistently brushed off the political left, who were his most enthusiastic supporters during the 2008 campaign.  He’s consistently failed the political centre by confusing “collaboration, consensus-building and intelligent conversation” with “complete abdication of leadership and authority”.  And the political right will hate him as a matter of principle.

And yet he has to be a heavy favourite for re-election, because instead of genuine conservative candidates for the Presidency, the Republican public have proven themselves only interested a parade of religious zealots, anti-liberty fascists and economic fringists who keep shouting that the best way to end a global recession brought about by a decade of Randian plutocratic policy from Republican congresses is more Randian plutocratic policy.  They’re so desperate to find someone like that to be their nominee that they glomp onto every new one that comes along, until they realise that, hey, this one’s just as detestable to the American general electorate as the others have been.

Mainstream media don’t preserve their neutrality by failing to point this out–they in fact abandon it.  When you deliberately ignore such a basic and important element of the story as the ridiculousness of the Republican primary field, and the desperate attempts of Republican primary voters to cling to economic and religious extremism, you slant the story in favour of ridiculousness and economic and religious extremism.

Of course, the Republicans have another candidate.  He’s consistently the number two candidate whenever the latest fringe extremist jumps to the head of the pack, and he’s consistently the number one candidate whenever the media and the Republican voters haven’t yet found a new fringe extremist to get excited about.  Just as Barack Obama will in all likelihood be re-elected by default because the only candidates the Republican Party can find capable of winning the vote of a conservative primary voter all make moderate general election voters either collapse with laughter or shudder at the terror of them winning the Presidency, so too will Mitt Romney in all likelihood win the Republican nomination by default because the Republican Party can’t find any candidates acceptable to conservative voters who aren’t also laughter-inducing or terrifying to sane, moderate general election voters.

They don’t like him because he doesn’t pass their religion test, and they attack him for not being a fringe extremist, but in the end, Republican primary voters will hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney.  Then they’ll hold him up before the general election voters with an unmistakable attitude of, “We couldn’t find anyone we actually like, so … this is the best we could do.  Mitt 2012!  Yeah!”  With predictable results.

All in all, a whole lot of huff and puff and enough candidate debates that the cable news networks really should have started a weekly Republican Debate Tuesday show by now, and all done just to surrender a general election.


I want to move to the appropriate Massachusetts congressional district so I can vote for Barney Frank

And about time it is that someone stood up to them and called them out on their ridiculous, disingenuous lies–and they are lies, not just errors, because these people know full well that none of their claims bear a speck of truth.

They’re lies when they appear in print, too, like when Investor’s Business Daily, in an attempt to further the ridiculous “death panel” meme, tried to make the claim that in Britain, the National Health Service deems people with physical handicaps as worthless and withholds medical care from them. In so doing they tried to illustrate this in a way that seems thoroughly, perfectly appropriate for anyone so stupid as to think the idea of the death panels has any validity–by claiming that, had Stephen Hawking lived in Britain and depended on the NHS, would have been tossed aside and left to die. (If you haven’t heard this story, click on that link. Really. Click, now.)

What the editor at IBD was apparently unaware of, of course, is that Hawking is British, and has depended on the NHS. What does he have to say of it? “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

I don’t get these people. I just don’t get them.


(If you’re reading on a feed that doesn’t carry the embedded video, you can see it at the original post.)


Edward VSo I’m back in the United States, after four weeks in England.

Generally I try to stay away from “Is life better in America or Britain?” because the question is far too complicated to have an answer. There are aspects of life that are better in America–such as the road network, the option of taking the remainder of your food home with you from the restaurant, the winters (if you live on either coast), college sports, and the knowledge that certain things (public toilets) should always be free–; just as there are aspects of life that are better in Britain–like the food, the public transport, the summers, professional sport, and the knowledge that certain things (lifesaving medical procedures) should always be free.

I’m sure that following this post I’ll have some others about our trip that reflect this dichotomy. So I’m starting out my posts about England with this one not because I want to start out by slamming America, but honestly, because–if I take a few days off after finishing my posts about England–I don’t want it to be the one that spends the longest time sitting at the top of the page.

Because there’s one aspect of life in Britain that makes me, as an American, feel ashamed of the United States.

The practice of only providing a bag to hold your purchase upon request. The wind turbines that pepper the English countryside, including massive banks of them in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The massive signs in energy-consumptive venues–like supermarkets or on buses and trains–detailing in percentages how much energy usage the company has reduced in the past few years and providing specific, dramatic goals for further progress in a clearly-defined timespan (“Carbon neutral by Spring 2012”). The smart cars that are regular sight on the roads.

Real recycling, with the user being required to properly separate different recyclables into different bins. And regular inspection by the people who collect your waste, so that if you’re not separating properly–or if you’re just trashing recyclables–you get real penalties, starting with the refusal to take your waste away. My aunt informs that in some counties there’s even an outright limit on the volume of non-recyclable litter individuals can generate.

These people are actually doing something serious about climate change and about sustainability and about ensuring society can live in a way that our planet can handle. It’s a part of everyday life. Quality Street–a decidedly expensive, upmarket brand of candy–has instructions down the side of the box on the most sustainable way of disposing of its packaging, including separating the clear colored plastic from their tinfoil coating on the candy wrappers so that the colored plastic can decompose on your compost heap (something that must have required drastically reformatting the colored plastic) and then breaking down the box so that its components can be sorted into the correct recycling bins.

And frankly, at the moment it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference because the single biggest national consumer and producer of waste in all of human history–us–is still wrapped up in sticking our fingers in our ears saying “Na na na it’s not real!”, all because an increasingly sociopathic and yet still bizarrely influential wingnut faction of American politics find it ideologically inconvenient to curb their mindless consumption so that their grandchildren can still have a planet to fucking live on.

How damn self-absorbed can we get?


Vote early, vote often, Vote Saxon

ETA: A picture of Claire

I have lots of friends who know Gainesville, Florida, and I have lots of friends who are fans of Doctor Who. But the list of my friends who know both Gainesville and Doctor Who is probably fairly short. For those of you who do appear on that list, though, I’d like to share a photograph I found on LiveJournal’s Doctor Who community this morning. Here’s the 34th Street Wall at one o’clock this morning, Election Day:


The young ladies on either side are the ones who did the painting. I’ve asked Claire to go down after class and get a picture of herself in front of it; if she does that, I’ll post it here.

And now, here’s Claire:

Claire at the 34th Street Wall

Harold Saxon: the candidate of Phi Mu sorority.


Words yesterday: 1198
Words total: 78,977

Time spent writing: Five hours (Noon-3pm, 9.30-11.30)
Reason for stopping: Boy got up; wanted to see the end of Monday Night Football

Lies, damn lies and statistics

electoral mapIf there’s anyone out there interested in Tuesday’s presidential election who hasn’t already checked it out, I’d like to recommend fivethirtyeight.com, a website devoted to projecting the election through the aggregation and statistical analysis of polling data. The site owner, Nate Silver, is the managing editor of Baseball Prospectus, so his credentials as a statistician are pretty much unimpeachable.

He’s quite open about his political preference–he’s pulling for Barack Obama–but his treatment of the numbers remains impartial. I’ve heard tell that fivethirtyeight (the name comes from the total number of votes available in the Electoral College) predicted more primary results correctly than anyone else, though I’ve got no citation to back it up. Though I do know that, for instance, the site was one of the only sources to predict Senator Obama’s exceptial performance in the North Carolina primary when pretty much all the experts expected him to do far worse.

Each non-partisan poll that comes his way gets fed into a complex statistical model that accounts for a host of things like the poll’s age, its sample size, the pollster’s track record and their “house lean” (whether their results tend to run a few points in favour of the Republicans or in favour of the Democrats). The model then runs ten thousand computer simulations of the election per day to come up with the site’s daily projection updates; the 34 Senate races around the country go through similar, if not quite as rigorous, scrutiny.

The site has a surfeit of numbers for people who want to dig into the statistics of the national vote, the electoral math and the Senate races, plus brief pieces of commentary throughout the day. But beyond that, they’ve also been running a pair of regular series. The first, “Road to 270” (the number of votes needed for an outright Electoral College win), has been going through the demographics of each state and each candidate’s chances there.

But the one I’ve found really fascinating has been “On the Road”, a series of pieces filed roughly every day by reporter Sean Quinn and photographer Brett Marty. Quinn and Marty have spent the past couple of months driving from one end of the country to the other, stopping in at campaign offices in every battleground state (or possible battleground state, like Indiana or North Carolina) to report on each campaign’s ground game–its ability to recruit and mobilise grassroots support.

The ground game is probably the single most aspect in securing victory in any campaign–both President Bush’s victories have rested on superior ground organisation in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. But ground game is also exceptionally difficult to poll and, because it’s so diffuse throughout the country without a single national focus or spokesperson, never gets reported on properly. Quinn’s reports are therefore just about the only picture we can get of what each campaign really looks like on the ground in all the states that matter, and I’ve read them avidly.

And a consistent picture has emerged. Time after time, we’ve been told of how the only McCain office in a given location will contain just one or two volunteers making phone calls; but then, a trip to any one of the three or four nearby Obama offices will find an office packed with enthusiastic volunteers, making calls or heading out the door to canvas or signing up for Get Out the Vote. So I was really interested when Sean posted this essay on Friday in which he revealed that he’s actually been overhyping the scope and impressiveness of McCain’s grassroots organisation for fear of otherwise appearing unbalanced. It’s a fascinating read.

Anyway, you can find a link to FiveThirtyEight in the list of blogs down the lefthand sidebar on this site. I encourage everyone to check it out, and I encourage everyone eligible to vote on Tuesday.


PS Saw a commercial while writing this post. They’re remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still? With Keanu Reeves? As an effects movie? Are they trying to give my italics key a heart attack?

Words yesterday: 570
Words today: 1360
Words total: 77,462

Time spent writing: Seven and a half hours (2.30-3.30, 12.30-the second 1.30, 10.30-12.30, 2.30-5pm)
Reason for stopping: I’m a good Florida fan; it was 2.30 in the morning; Lisa and Boy got home; Boy got up
New word today: lungful


The other day I received an email forward claiming that the US Mint’s new series of presidential dollar coins do not include the words “In God We Trust”. I’ve already deleted the email, so I can’t quote the exact one I received. Instead, I’ll quote one of the samples reproduced on Snopes’s page debunking this dishonest rumour; the version I received had several sentences taken word for word from this one, particularly the one I’m going to talk about:

You guessed it

Who originally put ‘In God We Trust’ onto our currency?

My bet is that it was one of the Presidents on these coins.

All our U.S. Government has done is Dishonor them, and disgust me!!!

If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!!


Together we can force them out of circulation.

(Just as a note: anyone who places a bet on a President being the one who first place “In God We Trust” on US currency would lose that bet. As about ten seconds of Googling can reveal. Of course, that’s about the same amount of time it takes to establish that these presidential dollars do include the phrase.)

Now, there’s a lot here that I could talk about how angry it makes me, and there’s a lot I could talk about how sad it makes me. I could talk about the whole undercurrent of “Anything that doesn’t make non-Christians feel like alienated second-class Americans counts as actively persecuting Christians!” that runs through so many of these fallacious email forward campaigns. It’s an undercurrent that would be laughable if so many people didn’t find it so powerful and invigorating that massive (and successful) consumer campaigns have been organised in its name.

I could talk about how the people who exploit that sentiment through emails like this are clearly doing it dishonestly, just to manipulate these people–the particular version of the email I receive had a story prepended about how the author had received one of the coins as change at the post office and refused to accept it, and the postal worker had expressed pride in that decision. So either the author knew they were lying about “In God We Trust” not appearing on the coin, because they had handled it and therefore must have seen it, or they were lying about the entire story of having received it as change. Either way, they were definitely lying about the postal worker’s reaction.

I could talk about how futile it feels when I hit Reply All and detail all the ways emails like this are false, not because people are going to think that my facts are suspect, but because I firmly believe that for most people who believe nonsense like this, whether or not it’s true simply has no relevance to them. These people believe these things because they want to believe them–because for whatever reason, they want it to be true that Big Evil Secularists have removed “In God We Trust” from the currency, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that Proctor and Gamble donate a portion of all their profits to the Church of Satan, that f*ck is an acronym of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, that Beaver Cleaver died in Vietnam, that gangs initiate new members by driving around at night with their lights off and chasing down and murdering anyone who flashes their high beams at them, that one of the World Trade Center bombers dated an American girl the summer before the attack and told her just before he broke contact with her that she shouldn’t go to the World Trade Center on 11 September or to any shopping malls on Hallowe’en, no matter how stupid all of those are when given even a moment’s serious scrutiny.

But the one line that jumped out at me more than any other from that email was, “If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!”

Really? I mean, really?

Walmart actively destroys the quality of life of millions of employees, both their own direct employees and the employees of their suppliers around the globe. Yahoo provides personal information to the People’s Republic of China so that the Chinese authorities can hunt down and imprison any of their citizens who commit the crime of expressing dissatisfaction with their country’s political situation. For that matter, China itself–the source of a huge and growing proportion of the products you and I buy every day, particularly of children’s toys, often manufactured in inhuman conditions and sold through Walmart–maintains a system where over a billion people are deprived of basic civil and human rights that you and I take for granted.

But the only unquestionably legitimate reason for a boycott the author of this email has ever encountered is whether or not four words that were only adopted as the National Motto in an anti-Soviet PR stunt in the 1950s appear on a series of limited-edition coins? Whose only material effect is to make sure that atheist or polytheistic American citizens are reminded that our country considers us inherently inferior to the monotheistic majority?

Allow me to attempt to rewrite the sentence in question so I can get closer to the original author’s real meaning:

If ever there was a boycott that will allow us to feel smugly superior without any effort, sacrifice or inconvenience to ourselves, THIS IS IT!!!

Which is what disgusts me as much as anything else about the sentiments in dishonest emails like this–this sentiment that we’ll make loud, obnoxious noises at anything we don’t like, so long as it doesn’t cause us a hassle in any way. It’s like the people who get up in arms every year about demanding retail employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” (again, purely with the aim of ensuring that non-Christians know that they can never be as good as Christians), which–I can tell you from experience–never seems to involve actually forgoing the purchase of whatever they were going to buy, just self-righteously haranguing the hapless customer service employee.

Truly trying to make the world a better place means sticking to your convictions even when–perhaps especially when–it makes our lives harder. As I noted above, whenever I get one of those email forwards–at least, one of the genuinely harmful ones, like Barack Obama being a Muslim or Starbucks refusing to donate products to soldiers in Iraq in an effort to undermine the war effort or the Supreme Court having a monument to the Ten Commandments at its entrance to confirm that American law is supposed to be based on Biblical law (all of which, funnily enough, always seem designed to get me to vote Republican)–I hit Reply All and debunk it. This isn’t easy for me; I’m profoundly uncomfortable making a fool of myself in front of people I don’t know (people I do know are often disbelieving when I say this, since I have absolutely no problem making a fool of myself when I know everyone in the room), and I know that when I send that reply I’m going to look like a total crank to dozens of strangers, very few of whom will even be willing to believe that truth that contradicts the urban legend they’d much prefer. But I realised that I couldn’t think of myself as the person I’d like to be if I was willing to let lies like that be spread right in front of me and not speak up.

Lisa and I don’t shop at Walmart. We decided that we simply couldn’t collude with Walmart’s business practices–either their censorship of artists’ work because they disagree with that art, or because of the horrible conditions under which their employees at all levels of distribution, all around the world, have to suffer–by spending our money in their stores. And sometimes that really sucks. It’s more expensive and it’s less convenient (and as a single-income household, which option is the cheapest is one of the two or three biggest factors in most purchases we make), and it especially has the opportunity for awkwardness when we visit her family in Florida or South Carolina, most of whom swear by Walmart.

Please don’t think I’m trying to hold myself up as some sort of shining example here, because I’m not. I’ll be the first to admit that there are other sacrifices we could make that we don’t. And we’re hardly perfect with the resolutions we do make; the avoid-conflict-at-all-costs ethos that runs through Lisa’s family means that in particular it’s not uncommon for us to end up at Walmart on a trip to South Carolina or Florida rather than get into an argument over what’s so objectionable about shopping there.

But my point here isn’t to turn people into ascetics in pursuit of living morally perfect lives. It’s just that there seem to be so many campaigns or events designed to salve people’s consciences about the causes they care about. I don’t object to such things because I don’t think they make enough of an impact; I object to them because I think they actively work against making an impact, by allowing people to pretend they’ve made a contribution without actually doing anything that might make an impact.

Like participating in Earth Hour: I’ve yet to encounter anyone who used their participation in Earth Hour as a springboard to actually live their life in a greener way, by no longer leaving their computer on all night long, or by choosing to own less than one car per licensed driver in the household.

Similarly, there was a movement on Facebook to have people set their status to “is gay” for National Coming Out Day last week. Laudable. But of the tens of thousands of people who participated, how many have made even a twenty dollar donation to organisations fighting against Proposition 8 in California or Amendment 2 in Florida? Doing so actually would make a contribution towards making our world a better place; what sort of impact did claiming to be gay on Facebook for a single day make?

Or blogging. I’ve blogged about how disgraceful the treatment people feel entitled to mete out to customer service employees in America is–but is there really anyone who’s started treating other human beings more civilly regardless of whether or not they wear a nametag because of what I’ve written?

If you want to do Earth Hour, or announce to the Facebook community that you’re gay for a day, or blog about what you care, great. I mean it–great. Stand up for what you believe in. But use stuff like that as a step towards actually making a difference.


Words today: 1059
Words total: 67,695

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1.30-3pm)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Tyop: The flat sandstone roofstops of the necropolis stretched away from them
New words used today: juddering, cinderblock
Alcohol: Amaretto fower
Milestone reached: Three quarters done!

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